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’BIG’ TROUBLE

Charles L. Mee’s play about the battle of the sexes is a hit at BAM

for The Brooklyn Paper

Despite their wishes, 50 nubile Greek women are being forced to marry 50 of their cousins. What are their options? In Aeschylus’ "The Suppliant Women" (circa 463 B.C.) the women flee to Argos and plead with King Pelasgus for protection.

In Charles L. Mee’s version of the story, "Big Love," now at BAM’s Harvey Theater, the 50 women flee Greece on their family yacht. They land on the Riviera and take refuge in the villa of a wealthy Italian man who tries to negotiate a compromise between the women and their would-be husbands, who arrive by helicopter to claim their brides.

"Big Love" is one of three recent Mee plays that include "love" in their title. The other two, "First Love," about two people in their 70s who fall in love for the first time, and "True Love," about a woman who falls in love with her stepson and the nature of unacceptable love, have both played or are playing in New York City this fall.

"Big Love" was first presented in the 2000 Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky. The production now at BAM is directed by Lee Waters and produced by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, where it opened last October to deservedly enthusiastic reviews.

In Mee’s play, the three women who represent the 50 may be fugitives but they are by no means suppliant. The first runaway bride, Lydia (Carolyn Baeumler), races onto the scene, strips off her wedding gown, and steps into a bathtub conveniently filled with water. She unabashedly explains to Piero (J. Michael Flynn), who owns the villa, that the house is so big she mistook it for a hotel.

When her two sisters, also dressed in wedding gowns, arrive, they sing a rousing and feisty version of Lesley Gore’s hit, "You Don’t Own Me." They are angry and defiant. They demand their rights.

"Men pretend they’re normal. But what they’re doing is manufacturing sperm," says one sister.

The women act out their determination by throwing themselves around the stage with such violence that the entire floor of the stage at the Harvey Theater had to be heavily padded. They are sincere, admirable, righteous and ridiculous all at the same time.

Their suitors, represented by three men who wear paratrooper’s uniforms under their tuxedos, are just as determined to marry the sisters, as the sisters are to remain single. Their spokesman, Constantine (Mark Zeisler), is a male chauvinist with a philosophical bent.

"Time itself is an act of rape. Life is rape. No one asks to be born and no one asks to die. We’re all taken by force all the time," he proclaims in between bouts of gum chewing.

In a long and powerful speech, brilliantly delivered by Zeisler, he explains that men are doing women a favor when they use force to show them the truth.

"There’s no such thing as good guys and bad guys. There are only guys, and they kill people. Nobody wants a good guy when they need defending."

Like the women, the men reinforce their position by hurling their bodies across the stage.

But Constantine does not speak for all his brothers. Nikos (Bruce McKenzie) tries to woo his bride, Lydia, by a declaration of love that is painfully awkward and painfully funny.

Nor are the women totally of one mind. Olympia (Aimee Guillot) admits that she rather likes men. Even the most vociferous man-hater, Thyona (K. J. Sanchez) concedes that it’s painful to always be angry.

Mee even makes room for alternative ways of loving. Giuliano (Tony Speciale), a young gay man who lives in the villa, first goes into ecstasies over the glory of ribbons and his Barbie doll collection, but then wins the sympathy of the audience with his soulful rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," and his tale of forbidden love discovered and lost on a long ago train ride.

Amidst the turmoil of this battle of the sexes, Leo’s mother, Bella (Lauren Klein) emerges as the wise arbiter who possesses equal doses of common sense and a sense of humor. A woman who knows her sons as well as she knows her tomatoes, Bella fell in love with her husband when he carried her off on his motor scooter. Decades later she declares, "I would get on the scooter again, just like the first time." It is Bella who makes the final pronouncement that carries the day: "There will be no justice, for the sake of healing."

With its powerful message and persistent humor, "Big Love" is like strong medicine with lots of sugar. Plays that portray the paradoxes and ambiguities of life and love are seldom this pleasant. "Big Love" is theater the way it should be - thoughtful and entertaining.

 

"Big Love" will be performed Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 at 7:30 pm, Dec. 8 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm and Dec. 9 at 3 pm. Tickets are $20, $35 and $50. BAM Harvey Theater is located at 651 Fulton St. For tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.

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