Big Love

Goodman Theatre

The story of the Danaids isn’t one of the more familiar Greek myths–but it is among the more interesting. The 50 daughters of Danaus–maidens of Greek descent born in Egypt–are betrothed to the 50 sons of the Egyptian king, who happens to be Danaus’s brother. (Why the girls were born in Egypt is a bit complicated; it has to do with their ancestor Io getting screwed by Zeus and then being transformed into a cow…oh, never mind.) Rebelling against their arranged marriages, the girls set sail for Greece, seeking asylum from King Pelasgus of Argos. Though reluctant to invite invasion by the Egyptians, Pelasgus accedes to the women’s request–after they threaten to embarrass him by committing mass suicide in public. Inevitably war follows as the Egyptians pursue their brides; conquered, the women seemingly submit–then kill the grooms on their wedding night.

This ancient tale–and its rendition by Aeschylus in his drama The Suppliant Women–is the inspiration for Charles L. Mee’s offbeat, uneven, but compelling comedy-drama Big Love. Commissioned for the 2000 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville–and directed there by Les Waters, who’s transplanted that production largely intact to the intimate Owen Bruner Goodman auditorium–Big Love is an imaginative reworking of the myth and its implications, which are both timeless and oddly immediate. When Mee wrote the script, he had in mind the plight of Bosnian women fleeing a brutal campaign of rape and genocide, a tragedy that had many Americans clucking in somewhat detached sympathy. The play takes on new resonance now, with its depiction of an affluent, complacent society being drawn unwillingly into conflict.

Setting the action in an elegant villa on the Italian Riviera, Mee focuses on three sisters who speak for their mostly unseen 47 siblings. These women are not the impoverished victims we think of when the subject turns to refugees; they’re pampered, privileged, and pretty as pictures in their white wedding gowns. Handsome, dark-haired, fiercely independent Thyona (K.J. Sanchez) is the hard-liner who won’t even consider honoring a contract she considers unjust. Glamorous, blond, sexy Olympia (Aimee Guillot) is ambivalent: she agrees with Thyona on principle but likes men and wants to be married. And Lydia (Carolyn Baeumler) is a loving soul increasingly uncomfortable with the die-hard militance Thyona espouses.

Their betrothed are Constantine (the superb Mark Zeisler), Oed (J. Matthew Jenkins), and Nikos (Bruce McKenzie), who make their entrance in military fatigues but quickly switch to tuxedos. Constantine, Thyona’s fiance, is the voice of reactionary traditionalism, a macho militarist who wants what he thinks is his; Oed, strong and mostly silent, is an enticing boy toy for Olympia; and shy, sensitive Nikos wins Lydia’s heart with his stammering courtship. Playing host to these young, attractive connubial combatants is wealthy, middle-aged Piero (J. Michael Flynn); his aged, worldly-wise mother, Bella (Lauren Klein); and Piero’s winsome gay nephew Giuliano (Tony Speciale). At first Piero tries to distance himself from the situation: “I’m not the Red Cross,” he says peevishly. “Why should I help you?” (The women’s answer: “We are here.”) Unable to evade responsibility, Piero and his family try to keep the peace by coaxing both sides into a compromise. Their failure sets the stage for a climactic orgy of sex and violence: what begins as “50 Brides for 50 Brothers” ends up a kinky, gruesome nightmare when all the women inflict murderous justice on their oppressors. All but one, that is: Lydia refuses to join in the wedding-night bloodbath. Ironically, Thyona brings her to trial for refusing to abide by a pact Lydia considers immoral–though Thyona did the same by leading her sisters in rebellion against their arranged marriages.

Big Love builds to its gory, then somber conclusion with an air of antic comedy that seems at odds with the subject matter. Opening with a startling, gleefully gratuitous flash of nudity as Lydia doffs her wedding dress to step into a bathtub, the show also includes exhilarating gymnastic displays by all three women, who throw themselves around the stage (covered by a pink mat) to demonstrate their resilience, and the men, whose tightly choreographed tumbling act expresses their sexual frustration. Graceful, lyrical dance sequences are juxtaposed with musical interludes, including a hilariously rowdy rendition of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” by the three women and a wistful (and unfortunately out of tune) version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” sung by Giuliano (who seems to have little purpose other than to offer a politically correct homosexual counterbalance to the male/female conflicts). Much of the script’s humor and the actors’ characterizations depends on a self-conscious air of sitcom brattiness that I found grating, though it had many audience members laughing loudly.

Shortly before the climactic slaughter, the play turns serious. The change comes in a speech by Constantine, who comments on the paradox of a civilization protected only by the uncivilized act of war. Answering the women’s charge that arranged marriage is merely legal rape, he explores the notion that men’s propensity for domination and violence is crucial to “the whole of life”–that male brutality is what keeps the peace and that the breakdown of civilization is what makes people understand the value of civilization.

When Aeschylus wrote The Suppliant Women in the fifth century BC, he was writing for an audience that accepted war and slavery as natural conditions. Mee, commissioned to write a play on a millennial theme, was writing for a society that regards war as an aberration infringing on a prosperous peace. Big Love challenges that perspective in a provocative and terribly timely way. Its characters rape in the name of law and commit murder in the name of justice; and though an apparently reassuring ending seems to suggest that love outweighs all other forces, the denouement is not exactly convincing. Lydia and Nikos go off hand in hand seemingly happy though visibly numbed by the carnage around them. But it’s hard not to think that somewhere down the line Nikos will revive the cycle of violence. His counterpart in one version of the original myth avenges his brothers’ deaths by murdering the Danaids, who are then condemned to eternally haul water in bottomless jars in Hades.

Mee would be well aware of this conclusion. A scholar bred in suburban Chicago and trained at Harvard, he’s demonstrated a particular affinity for Greek tragedy, as evidenced in his adaptation of Euripides’ Orestes, which Roadworks turned into a rock musical. It seems unlikely he’d settle for a feel-good ending, and in fact Mee is quoted in Goodman publicity material saying, “My plays are broken, jagged,…filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up.” For all its breathless playfulness and athletic energy (Jean Isaacs choreographed the tumbling routines and dances) and its appealingly bright design (credit Annie Smart for the sets, James Schuette for the costumes, and Robert Wierzel for the lights), Big Love is a play whose dark underpinnings nag at the conscience long after the laughter has subsided.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.