Classical drama collides with modern-day excess in Charles Mee’s Big Love, a fiercely extravagant adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens that The New York Times describes as “an MGM musical in Technicolor, a circus and, believe it, a Greek tragedy.”
Shows, presented by Washington University’s Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences, begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 24; at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday, April 26; and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, April 27, in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre, located in the Mallinckrodt Student Center, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $12 ($8 for students, senior citizens and Washington University faculty and staff) and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office, (314) 935-6543, and all MetroTix outlets. For more information, call (314) 935-6543.
Written in approximately 490 B.C., The Suppliant Maidens is one of the oldest surviving dramas in Western literature. Mee, a former historian and magazine editor, uses the basic storyline — 50 sisters flee arranged marriage to their 50 cousins — as a kind of launch pad for a wide-ranging, and frequently Dionysian, rumination on the so-called “battle of the sexes.”
The sisters, who originally functioned as a chorus, are here rendered as three distinct voices: the militant Thyona (sophomore Aundriel Potier), the romantic Olympia (senior Nicole Blicher) and the conflicted Lydia (senior Jea Hyun Rhyu). Rebelling against the unwanted nuptials, the three take refuge in the spacious Italian villa of Piero (senior Sam Reiff-Pasarew), yet their suitors — American émigrés Constantine (senior Chris Narducci), Oed (sophomore Damien Cortese) and Nikos (junior Jared Macke) — remain in hot pursuit, descending upon the villa by helicopter. When Piero’s attempts to arbitrate the matter fail, the sisters resolve to marry and then murder their would-be husbands, despite Lydia’s growing fondness for the sweet-tempered Nikos.
“It’s a play filled with sensory excess, sensory overload,” said Andrea Urice, artist-in-residence in the PAD, who directs the cast of 15. “The music is beautiful but played too loudly; the clothes — tuxedoes and wedding dresses — are lovely but get smeared with blood and wedding cake. You have very tender, poignant moments and then you have stuff that’s completely over the top: the beautiful and the ugly all wrapped up into one.”
Urice first encountered Big Love at its premiere at the 2000 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky. She noted that, while Mee does touch on what are sometimes referred to as “gender issues,” particularly those relating to power and control, his larger themes are “the collisions that happen at the intersections of all human relationships, when flawed creatures meet and grapple with issues larger than themselves.”
“It’s messy and difficult, and it extends beyond just men and women fighting,” she added. “Ultimately, I think he’s asking us to look at how humans behave when we’re in ‘crisis mode’ — when we’re facing imminent disaster or other difficult situations — and what it would be like to live in that heightened state all the time.”
Mee, whose struggles with polio are recounted in the memoir A Nearly Normal Life, took up playwriting late in life; his first New York production, The Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem, came in 1988, when the author was 49. His stage works, collectively dubbed “the (re)making project,” frequently incorporate existing texts. For example, in addition to Aeschylus, Big Love references works by10th-century Japanese author Sei Shonagon; would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solanus; and self-help gurus Leo Buscaglia and Gerald G. Jampolsky, among many others.
“There is no such thing as an original play,” Mee argues on his Web site, charlesmee.org, noting that the classical Greek plays were “all based on earlier plays or poems or myths.” Yet he adds that an author’s work is inevitably stamped by his or her own history, society and psychology. “And so, whether we mean to or not, the work we do is both received and created, both an adaptation and an original, at the same time. We re-make things as we go.”
The PAD technical crew includes scenic designer Christopher Pickart, artist-in-residence, who, in order to accommodate the play’s significant physical demands, has subtly fashioned the stage as a kind of giant wrestling mat. Costumes are by senior Cassandra Beaver. Lighting is by David Vogel, technical director and artist-in-residence, with sound by senior Erin Whitten. Lou Bird served as guest fight director.