The past and present intersect in the plays of Charles Mee. Known for taking those hefty Greek tragedies and re-imagining them for today’s audiences, his works like "Big Love" ask us—no, challenge us--to give some serious personal thought to our social responsibility as citizens.
Mee uses the theater as a living and breathing collage, cutting together a collection of themes, a variety of theatrical styles; he even suggests specific music to make us listen in new ways about the issues that he feels matter most. Theater to him should be a modern day vaudeville.
In the current Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of "Big Love," Mee’s ideas and characters bravely jump off the page. Some of those leaps are actually quite physical, but more on that later. This is made possible through the efforts of a spirited, physical company that brings intensity and commitment to an old story with a larger-than-life premise.
When 50 Greek brides flee forced marriages to their 50 male cousins, they seek refuge at an Italian villa. But the adventure is only beginning for Lydia, Thyona, and Olympia, who represent the larger group. When Piero, the keeper of the villa, accepts them, at least to catch their breath poolside while he considers the potential consequences, those feisty male counterparts zip-line in by chopper and surround the piazza. World War Mee has been launched.
Adapted from Aeschylus’s "The Suppliants," one of the first plays of the western world, Mee’s version explores boundaries, as the program notes: between love and hate, romance and violence, laughter and pain. And it’s the actors who shoulder the load boldly to make it all happen. Mee’s unique style asks them not only to stretch their intellectual and emotional range, but to interweave realism with physical storytelling.
The results include scenes set to choreography, and some thrilling action sequences. This dance/theater production delivers its intended visceral response. Directed by Helene Kvale with choreography by Marie Boyette, the physical approach is drawn from Pina Bausch movement, and the Apache dance form. Trust me—it's pretty neat stuff, and gradually works to create a world on stage we buy into.
At the same time, the actors must find ways of bringing together movement and dialogue to find the truth in Mee’s text. To do all that, you had better be in shape. This company, though there are many young conservatory actors, prove able and willing, from the graceful Briana Maia as Lydia, to the fierce tribal-resister Thyona, athletically embodied by Olivia Saccomanno. When the male cousins finally share with us how difficult it is to be a man, we watch courtside as “gymnastics meets kick-boxing meets high flying calisthenics.” It's a self-abusive Olympiad that rouses the house.
Not everything is physical. Mee’s many long speeches flow easily throughout the performance. Even though I can’t possibly absorb all of his important ideas (he comes after you constantly), there are key moments that become crystal.
As Constantine, Anthony J. Goes pleads to the audience about the true plight of men. He reveals the necessary balance between bad guys and good guys, and skillfully progresses from rage-in-motion to stillness, sharing this secret truth with deep intimacy. Later, in the play’s final verdict regarding life versus death, Bella (Libby George) offers a summation as if a Greek goddess herself. She tenderly makes her case that “love trumps all.” It’s impossible not to second her wise decision.
If you’ve never seen a Charles Mee play, this is the perfect opportunity. Bring an open mind and allow CRT’s devoted company to set you free. This production of "Big Love" by the Connecticut Repertory Theatre has certainly met Mee’s wonderful, theatrical challenge by taking leaps.
If you plan to attend:
"Big Love" at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre runs through October 13. Tickets are available by calling 860-486-2113 or by purchasing them online ($29).