By Charles Mee; Directed by Tina Landau
Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 3.15.15
Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 2.25.15
The cast of Big Love. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
BOTTOM LINE: Big Love is a big, beautiful, fantastic mess. Just like love.
It’s an unusual and wonderful sight: the amazingly original Charles Mee, headlining the Signature Theater. Signature, primarily devoted to the producing of new work by one playwright a season, is also committed to reviving the work of some of it's "signature artists." Mee was featured in their 2007-2008 season. And what a treat it is to have him back.
First things first, we must always expect the unexpected. Mee has no rules. Like a wild, flowing, free verse poem, words and songs and actions are sparked from some deep internal place that can only be described as the great mystery of love. Characters move forward in direct addresses to the audience in a device that would feel contrived in any ordinary play. This is Mee’s world. And what a joyful ride.
Based on a play from ancient Greece, we’re plunged into a story of three women (and presumably 47 others) that must marry men they have never met and do not love. Olympia (Libby Winters) and Thyona (Stacey Sargeant) are of two minds, selfie-obsessed Olympia just can’t possibly be ready for marriage and Thyona seems dead set from the start to defy whatever rules have been set down on a matter of feminist principle (how this will end can’t be good if I know Greek tragedy like I think I do.) The other, Lydia (played fearlessly by Rebecca Naomi Jones), seems the most even-headed of the bunch. And after meeting her destined husband Nikos (played by the adorable and certainly husband-worthy-material Bobby Steggert), she seems to actually fall madly and impossibly in love. Perhaps this marriage plot isn’t so bad.
We also meet the menagerie of inhabitants of this Italian villa where the marriage ceremonies are to commence. Expert among them is Preston Sadleir, as Giuliano, who takes on the role of caretaker and overlooked host brilliantly. In one of Big Love’s highlights Sadleir brings a direct address to us far downstage as he tells of a love he once had and lost or never followed. And his version of a torch song at a white baby grand is enough to convince us that his day will come. We meet our master of the villa, Piero (Christopher Innvar) and his mother and matriarch Bella (played with comic, tomato-smashing precision by Lynn Cohen) who seem to have this place locked in old-world charm and tradition.
Mee’s work is glorious for so many reasons. What’s exciting is that in Big Love’s complete uniqueness there is actually little new-ness here. Mee does not believe in original ideas because all of the stories have already been told. The plot itself, based on one of our oldest surviving plays in the world by Aeschylus, is nothing new. Even a great deal of the text and songs are borrowed from pop culture. It’s Mee’s expert sense of the collage that makes up our scary and textured world of the unexplained human psyche that keeps us coming back for more. Written originally for the Humana Festival in 2000, there is something that feels vaguely Bush-era about this shows politics of power, gender, and revolt against classic notions of rigid nostalgia. Big Love holds up for all of the same reasons that we still care about stories already told. Through them we learn more about ourselves.
Tina Landau’s expertly crafted vision is genius in its sleek white box simplicity that is transformed by leaving props and costumes strewn about the space as we move through the play. A dress removed in the first ten seconds of the play (leaving an entirely naked Rebecca Naomi Jones bathing onstage for a good portion of the first scene) remains crumpled up along with the rest of the show’s debris. Landau has an exciting, messy, though uniquely controlled climax in store for us, that can’t be ruined here. And some wonderful contributions here from Brett J. Banakis as the flower-canopied scenic designer and Austin Switser who bathes the entire playing space in wonderful graphics of waves, glass shattering, and an amazingly, jarring war scene complete with strobing helicopters.
There’s too much good in Signature’s Big Love to fit into the amount of space this review allows. And as we are told in the show’s wonderful conclusion “to love cannot be wrong.” Indeed, with all the horrors and atrocities that can even be had in more mundane love affairs we must succumb to the powers of love's attraction in order to experience all that is good in life. “...clouds...snow...silk stockings...some faded thing...spring water...the hum of insects...the earth itself...dirt” all beautiful things. Let’s appreciate the majesty.
(Big Love plays at the Signature Theater through March 15, 2015. Performances are (from Monday, February 23 – Sunday, March 1) Mondays at 7PM; Wednesdays at 2PM and 7:30PM; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM; Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM; and Sunday at 2PM. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling 212.244.7529 and visiting www.signaturetheatre.org.)