Very early in Big Love, cast member Daisy Blake removes a wedding gown to stand completely nude on stage. In the interest of Actors Gender Equity, co-star Dan Larrinaga similarly goes the full monty later in the show.
This information is presented not for prurient interest—frontal naughty bits are mostly hidden from view—but as a metaphorical example of how Charles Mee’s live-wire play manages the remarkable feat of being both raw and unabashedly theatrical. Mee has nothing less on his mind than the nature of contemporary manhood and womanhood, and how those two notions crash into couplehood. Emotions are stripped as bare as the two aforementioned actors, but the stage vibrates with you-ain’t-seen-nothin’-yet showmanship. As smartly directed by Meg Gibson, Big Love becomes a sort of aerobic opera, as wildly entertaining as it is revelatory.
Mee takes as his jumping-off point Aeschylus’ classical Greek drama The Suppliant Women, but don’t let that scare you away. Fifty Greek sisters have been promised in a marriage deal to their 50 emigrated-to-America cousins, but they flee to Italy on the day of their scheduled forced nuptials. The sisters are represented on stage by Lydia (Blake), Olympia (Arika Schockmel) and Thyona (Brenda Sue Cowley), who plead for the wealthy Piero (David Spencer) to grant them and their kin asylum. But the spurned grooms—represented by Nikos (Robert Scott Smith), Contantine (Larrinaga) and Oed (Lane Richins)—have no intention of giving up their claim.
Expect here no simplistic drubbing of patriarchy and gender oppression. Big Love actually proves remarkably sneaky in that respect, kicking off with a dynamic production number of the three women singing along with Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” As sisters are wont to do, they trade perspectives on men, from the more romantic Olympia’s hope that someone is out there for her to the battle-scarred Thyona’s opinion that “male babies should be flushed down the toilet at birth.” And they do so while leaping, tumbling and thrashing across a set strewn with pillows-cum-gymnastics mats, their emotional frustrations erupting into physical action. If this is man-bashing, you’ve rarely seen it with such intensity.
But it’s not just man-bashing, as Mee makes it clear once the men get their shot. With equal physical and verbal fervor, they lash out over their own confusion, punctuated by a monologue justifying sexual assault that’s riveting in its twisted, almost-understandable logic. Mee cuts to the quick of trite “men and women are different” philosophizing, finding punchy variations on familiar themes while draping them with the writ-large emotions of Greek tragedy.
Not to mention the writ-large emotions of musical theater. After the anthemic “You Don’t Own Me” puts a charge into female empowerment, Big Love crafts strangely affecting interludes out of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and the 1978 Gino Vannelli schmaltz classic “I Just Wanna Stop.” The latter in particular cracks the show into an entirely new perspective, underscoring the burgeoning attraction between Lydia and Nikos with magnificently conflicted choreography and some physical acting by Blake that’s simply heartbreaking.
This is where Big Love latches onto the most compelling of its many compelling ideas. While Lydia’s sisters view her love of Nikos as a betrayal, it actually becomes a beautiful act of faith. In a world where it’s so much easier to drive ourselves crazy over the things that divide us, there’s something unspeakably daring about deciding to come together.
Big Love overflows with so much rich thematic material and so many grand gestures that it would be easy to overlook the small touches that give it an extra push: K. L. Alberts’ costumes, which turn the three brothers into corporate-sponsored refugees from NASCAR; sly supporting work by Spencer, Eric J. Tierney and Joyce Cohen; and a pre-show medley of vintage love songs that runs the gamut from The Partridge Family to Barry White. By all rights the show should feel over-stuffed; instead, it’s an explosive suggestion that there’s always something new to say about humanity’s oldest struggles. Sometimes you have to start by stripping down to the skin to dress up a story in a completely original way.