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Theater Review:

"BIG LOVE" at Goodman Theatre


It’s easy to get seduced by "Big Love," Charles L. Mee’s highly physical and contemplative updating of Aeschylus’ "The Suppliant Women." The Goodman Theatre production, directed by Les Waters, features a smart and fearless cast willing to literally fling itself into the script’s vicious satire on contemporary sexual politics. The playwright creates vivid characters each representing a gamut of male/female archetypes.

And the heavily padded thrust-style stage of the flexible Owen Bruner Goodman space is a masterpiece of understated design. Set designer Annie Smart artfully places a white bathtub, a chandelier, a tree branch and chilled champagne against powdery blue-and-white sky panels, accenting the soothing rapture of a hilltop Italian villa overlooking the sea. Robert Wierzel’s creamy and quirky lighting adds to the layered visual bravura, which extends to aural brilliance via Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s eloquent and electrifying sound design.

Yet all of these seemingly glorious factors considered, I found "Big Love" to be a lopsided, dangerously narrow play rife with disturbing stereotypes. Despite his efforts to tackle age-old questions on gender roles, Mee’s varied explorations of the male-female psyche are laced with agendas that ultimately widen the chasm between men and women – neither of whom could ever be categorized in such general terms. And, while Mee may call for tolerance from both sexes, he never strikes a satisfying balance.

"Big Love" premiered at the 2000 Humana Festival of New American Plays produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Most of the original cast is intact, with a few talented (and greatly under-used) Chicago actors rounding out the ensemble.

Mee’s first challenge is transferring a Greek play, believed to be the earliest surviving work of Western dramatic literature, to a modern setting. In it, 50 Greek sisters, betrothed from birth to their 50 cousins, escape their fate by setting sail for Italy on their wedding day. They land, in full bridal attire, at a villa owned by an Italian aristocrat named Piero, who half-heartedly agrees to shelter them. When the women’s intended husbands find them, Piero cuts a deal with the men -- prompting the brides to vow to murder their spouses on their wedding night. Slaughter ensues, along with a hard-to-fathom catharsis addressing forgiveness and hope.

Even on a metaphoric level, it’s tough to buy Mee’s premise that these modern-day women have no choice. Their extreme – and horrifying – act would make sense within the context of Greek tragedy. Here it only reinforces the futile violent and hate-filled reversals many women so casually apply to men. I personally don’t believe feminist revenge tactics used to much acclaim in films like "Thelma and Louise" or "The First Wives Club" have ever benefited either party in the battle of the sexes. The Goodman Theatre carries this idea to more ridiculously cliched extremes in its radio ad campaign for the show.

Since a production featuring 50 brides for 50 cousins would be cost-prohibitive, Mee condenses his characters into three couples tied to a certain male or female personality type. A few more brides and grooms join the wedding party/blood bath later; and we generally must imagine a larger nuptial entourage in our heads.

Lydia represents the most democratic and honest of the women. She is paired with Nikos, the most emasculated and insecure of the men. Olympia is the ditzy sister, who doesn’t mind having a man protect her or admire her body or buy her nice things. She is teamed with the taciturn, shallow and handsome Oed. Leading the ferocious battle against her oppressive "sperm manufacturers" is radical feminist Thyona, engaged to Constantine, the most unapologetically macho of the bunch.

The fact that Lydia and her benign and whimpering – and, therefore, non-threatening – husband Nikos survive the massacre is its own quiet commentary on the playwright’s unbalanced perspective.

But there’s another level of off-kilter dramatic positioning. The Greek couples are surrounded by their Italian hosts, including the overly suave Piero and his inexplicably peasant-clad mother Bella – who takes on the role of a Solomon-like figure in the end – as well as the flamingly gay Giuliano, who brags about his collection of Barbie and Ken dolls. Each one of these characters serves as a glaring stereotype, as does the over-sexed older British woman Eleanor who is joined by her cartoonishly smarmy Italian lover Leo.

J. Michael Flynn and Lauren Klein take on the dual roles of Piero/Leo and Bella/Eleanor. But their poise and charisma can’t disguise their embarrassing accents and over-the-top mannerisms. It’s baffling why Bella, the lady of this gorgeous villa, clomps around in rags and carries a basket full of tomatoes (which she proceeds to use in what I felt was a silly, over-long vaudevillian scene to describe her 13 sons). Piero always seems to be emerging from a hot tub; and there are the usual intimations that he’s "connected."

The Italian characters (and one British) are in stark – and unfair -- contrast to the Greek brides and grooms, with the latter group portrayed in staunch American fashion. Why not make them all speak in their proper accents or give them all American dialects?

"Big Love" also has its gratuitous flashy moments, from Lydia’s full-frontal nudity to each set of brides and grooms hurling themselves acrobatically across the stage in a ridiculous cleansing and/or venting ritual. The stage-blood-heavy slaughter scene is among the most brutally sensationalistic.

Carolyn Baeumler as the morally torn Lydia and Mark Zeisler as the pumped-up, pull-no-punches Constantine deliver the most omni-tiered performances, with Bruce McKenzie endowing the stammering Nikos with an urgent sincerity.

Nevertheless, the play takes a self-consciously trendy route toward new commentary on male-female relationships only to wash up on a very familiar shore of re-hashed bickering and reinforced stereotypes.•

"Big Love" runs through November 18 at the Owen Bruner Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $20-$40. Call 312-443-3800.

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