It’d been a long time, since last December, since I’d been to the Signature Theatre to see a show. But Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I met at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on Friday evening, 6 March, to see the revival of Charles Mee’s Big Love, part of Signature’s Legacy season. (Mee was STC’s playwright-in-residence for the 2007-08 season.)
I’m not a follower of Mee’s work. In fact, not counting a fragment that was part of the anti-war collage Collateral Damage: The Private Life of the New World Order (Meditations on the Wars) at La MaMa in 1991, I’ve only seen one other Mee play, a 1996 revival of Trojan Women: A Love Story produced by the site-specific troupe En Garde Arts. (Staged in and around the disused East River Park Amphitheatre, that production had also been directed by Tina Landau, who has directed Big Love for STC.) Now, I don’t feel as ill-disposed to Mee’s playwriting as Ben Brantley seems to, from the impression I get from his review of Big Love in the New York Times. He said that Mee’s “plays often suggest a collagist who’s gone crazy with the scissors,” strongly intimating that he isn’t a fan.
Written originally for the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2000, Big Love has been produced many times by many companies across the country. Mee based the play on one of the oldest existing Greek tragedies, Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Woman (it has several English titles), written in about 492 BCE as the first part of a tragic trilogy; the second and third plays (The Egyptians and The Daughters of Danaus or The Danaides) and a satyr play (Amymone) are lost. The plots of Aeschylus’ tragedy and Mee’s tragicomedy are parallel (except for location and time), so I won’t recap the Greek version; it’s too easy to look up. STC’s Big Love, which started previews on 5 February and opened on 23 February, was presented in the Irene Diamond Stage, STC’s 294-seat proscenium house. The show, which closed on 15 March, ran about 95 minutes without an intermission.
Big Love, which has nothing to do with Mormonism, polygamy, or the late cable TV series, tells the story of 50 sisters, represented on stage by just three, who’ve been contracted to marry their 50 cousins against their wishes. They’ve fled their Grecian homeland on their wedding day and come to Italy to ask for asylum at the seaside villa of Piero (Christopher Innvar), the “connected” son (one of 13—large families are a staple of Big Love) of Bella (Lynn Cohen) and uncle of Giuliano (Preston Sadleir). Sister Thyona (Stacey Sargeant) is adamant from the outset to reject on feminist principle any agreement resulting in marriage; Olympia (Libby Winters), who rather likes men in general, is easily manipulated by one or another of her sisters. Sister number three, Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones), the most reasonable of the siblings, seems actually to have fallen in love with her designated husband-to-be, Nikos (Bobby Steggert). At first Piero waffles about granting his protection to the women, but agrees in the end. Until, that is, the 50 cousins arrive by helicopter, garbed in full combat flight gear like so many air-cav rangers, represented by Constantine (Ryan-James Hatanaka), the most macho and aggressive of the fiancés who believes “Life is rape”; Oed (that’s “Ed,” as in . . . well, Oedipus, I guess; Emmanuel Brown); and Nikos—who all just happen to be the prospective grooms of (can you guess?)—the three runaway brides. Piero reverses his decision on asylum and decides to negotiate with the Greek-born, American-raised cousins, but Thyona belligerently refuses any accommodation, while Olympia ping-pongs back and forth and Lydia finds she has true feelings for Nikos as he does for her. Thyona, who declares that “the male is a biological accident” and that “Boy babies should be flushed down the toilet at birth,” wrings a bloody pact from her sisters, and the play ends in a gory and violent melee, the outcome of which I won’t relate. (Fight choreography in Big Love is credited to the father-and-son fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet.)
(By the way, it’s easy to discover the play’s ending because Mee posts his scripts for free on his website, the (re)making project, http://www.charlesmee.org. The writer invites people “to take the plays from this website and use them freely as a resource for your own work,” though he now charges a royalty for any producer who uses the scripts “essentially or substantially as I have composed them.” He’s the only playwright to make all his work freely available on the Internet.)
Charles L. Mee, Jr., 76, was born in Evanston, Illinois. He contracted polio at 14, the impact of which he recounts in his 1999 memoir, A Nearly Normal Life (Little, Brown). (The playwright asserts that his plays are exceedingly physical because “it’s a vicarious life.” He loves athleticism, but he can’t perform it so “I get to just write it down and other people do it for me.”) He graduated from Harvard in 1960 and moved to New York City where he became part of the Greenwich Village theater scene that gave birth of Off-Off-Broadway. (I posted an article on this bit of theater history on 12 and 15 December 2011.) From 1962 to 1964, his plays were presented at such theaters as Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa E.T.C., Caffé Cino, Ralph Cook’s Theatre Genesis, and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater. In 1965, to support himself, his wife, and baby daughter (Mee now has five children and a granddaughter), he left playwriting and began writing books on history, starting with Lorenzo De’Medici and the Renaissance, published in 1969.
Also in the ’60s, Mee became a political activist, campaigning against the war in Vietnam. In the 1970s, he co-founded the National Committee on the Presidency, calling for Pres. Richard Nixon’s impeachment. (Nixon, of course, became the only president to resign his office in 1974, just ahead of a vote to impeach in Congress.) His work in this area of politics led Mee to write several important books on political history, most prominently 1975’s Meeting at Potsdam (about the 1945 summit conference at the end of World War II with Pres. Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin), which was adapted by David Susskind for film and television. Mee’s last published book on history was the 1993 Playing God: Seven Fateful Moments When Great Men Met to Change the World.
Even as he continued to write history books and work as an editor (Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts for American Heritage; Tulane Drama Review, now simply TDR; and at Rebus, Inc., a consumer health publisher), in 1985, Mee returned to playwriting with the libretto for Martha Clarke’s dance drama Vienna: Lusthaus. (He revised the show’s book in 2002 and it was revived as Vienna: Lusthaus (Revisited); Mee and Clarke collaborated again in 2004 on Belle Époque. I saw a staging of Vienna; Lusthaus in 2002 and I reported on another Clarke production, Chéri, on 20 December 2013.)
In 1991, Mee collaborated with director Anne Bogart and En Garde Arts, the site-specific performance company, on Another Person is a Foreign Country, the first of many joint productions. In 1992, Robert Woodruff directed Mee’s Orestes at the University of California, San Diego, and Anne Bogart staged it at the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI) in upstate New York. (It was later revived that summer by Tina Landau and En Garde Arts as Orestes 2.0 on an abandoned pier on the Hudson River.) This was the first of 10 plays for which Mee used classical Greek texts as “scaffolding” onto which he would hang his original elements and then “throw the scaffolding away and call whatever remained the script.”
In other works, in addition to Greek tragedies, Mee used Shakespeare, Molière, Anton Chekhov, Bertolt Brecht, René Magritte paintings, Bollywood musicals, and his own writing as sources. In his memoir, the dramatist lays out his dramaturgical principle with respect to his borrowed material: “smash it to ruins, and then, atop its ruined structure of plot and character, write a new play, with all-new language, characters of today speaking like people of today . . . . Plays filled with song, dance, movement, beauty, heartache. . . .” In some recent plays, the playwright explores the culture and history of 20th-century America through the perspective of visual artists such as painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg in bobrauschenbergamerica (2001), sculptor and assemblage-maker Joseph Cornell in Hotel Cassiopeia (2006), installation artist Jason Rhoades and painter-illustrator Norman Rockwell in Under Construction (2009), and Scottish sculptor James Castle in soot and spit (the musical) (2013).
In addition to having been the Signature playwright-in-residence in 2007-08, Mee, who now has written 51 plays, is the only resident playwright of Anne Bogart’s SITI Company. In 2005, the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded the playwright its Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in drama; he’s also won two OBIE Awards (Vienna: Lusthaus, 1986, and Big Love, 2002), the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for Drama (2000), and the Richard B. Fisher Award given by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He currently teaches playwriting at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
In his program notes to Trojan Women, Mee wrote: “This piece was developed . . . the way Max Ernst made his Fatagaga pieces at the end of World War I: incorporating shards of our contemporary world, to lie, as in a bed of ruins, within the frame of the classical world.” Ernst, a Dadaist and Surrealist, made photo collages in the 1920s with his collaborator Hans Arp in which they used pictures from multifarious sources, sharing the creation so that no one artist’s personal imprint was detectable. Then Ernst photographed the assemblage to erase the evidence of the cut-and-paste, further denaturing the final art work. (Fatagaga, a nonsense word that Ernst and Arp invented for the name of these works, is an acronym of “fabrication de tableaux garantis gazométriques”—manufacture of pictures guaranteed to be gasometric.) Mee, who bluntly states on his website, “There is no such thing as an original play,” aims at a similar effect, creating theater collages by sampling texts from many sources, principally here the classic Greek tragedies, and then reworking them so that the seams are no longer detectable. (For Big Love, Mee lists a slew of other sources and inspirations: Klaus Theweleit, a German sociologist and writer; American author and motivational speaker Leo Buscaglia; American child and adult psychiatrist Gerald G. Jampolsky; Valerie Solanus, an American radical feminist writer; Maureen Stanton, an American nonfiction writer; English novelist Lisa St. Aubin de Teran; Sei Shonagon, a 10th-century Japanese author and court lady; American writer Eleanor Clark; Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, an American journalist, essayist and memoirist; and Polish-born American author Kate Simon, among others.)
“What Ernst did, in effect,” explained Mee, “is what I’m saying I’d like to do: he took scissors and he cut texts out of daily newspapers and catalogues of other things, and then he rearranged them on a page and glued them down and did a little drawing and painting around them to make them into his view of something. So, in effect, he took the unedited material of the real world and rendered it as hallucination. And that’s what I think I’m doing all the time. I think Max Ernst is my dramaturg.” (Making his texts available for further adaptation is a continuation of this practice: just as Mee assembled his plays from many outside sources, others should be free to use his plays to create more collages.) “All this,” wrote one critic of Mee’s work, “is geared towards replicating Mee's sense that his plays are written to and from the culture at large.”
The playwright not only uses various texts to assemble his scripts, but “a combination of music and movement and text,” what he refers to as “all the elements of American musical comedy but in a different way”—an affinity he shares with Tina Landau, a frequent collaborator. Furthermore, his structure is . . . well, non-Aristotelian. Mee explains:
In a work of art that occurs in time, like a novel or a play, you usually need a plot line so people don’t wonder what’s going on and where they are. But with a lot of things, like choreography and music, there isn’t a story line. Big Love has a plot line, but it also uses these other, unconscious techniques of coherence: morning, afternoon, night, gloom, awfulness, dawn, or no dawn. Or chaos and confusion, sweetness, disaster. There are all of these ways of structuring things that I find wonderful, and more like the complicated lives that we actually live.
Mee turned to Aeschylus’ ancient tragedy for Big Love, he says, in celebration of the millennium: “I’ll go back and take one of the oldest plays in the world, and see if it still speaks to us today,” he decided in 2000. What he determined (true to his flower-child youth, it seems to me) is that if the Aeschylus trilogy that had survived as the model for human conduct was The Danaids instead of The Oresteia, the Western world would be devoted not to a cycle of justice and revenge but to “forgiveness and compassion and social love. And that way we can arrive at peace, and a livable society.” The title, he explains, comes from the notion that in order to survive the bloody turmoil depicted in the end of the play (in both Aeschylus’ and Mee’s telling), it takes “huge forgiveness”: “There has to be big love.”
Clearly, a spectator’s or a reader’s response to a Charles Mee play is dependent on an affinity for his kind of collagist dramaturgy. It seems that Brantley of the Times doesn’t care for it, or at least not in Mee’s hands. I, on the other hand, don’t have a fundamental problem with well-constructed collages or even pastiches. But the result has to have something worthwhile to say. (Remember, you long-time ROTters, my criteria for good theater: it has to be theatrical—and a well-done collage meets that requirement—and it must have something to say above merely telling a story.) Well, that’s where Big Love falls short for me. (I’ll have a word or two to say about the theatricality as well, but we’ll let that slide for now.) It’s a cliché—or several clichés strung together—and it’s not at all revealing or terribly interesting. Love, of course, is Mee’s topic here, but he doesn’t add anything to that well-plumbed rumination, the preoccupation of poets, playwrights, songwriters, sculptors, and painters since civilization began. He does cover all the permutations (especially if you throw in plain ol’ sex, which Mee does): boy-girl, boy-boy (Giuliano is gay: he collects Kens and Barbies), girl-girl, old-young, mother-son (ahem, maternal, not incest), casual, romantic, physical, experimental/fetishist, lost/nostalgic—you name it, Mee gets it in.
The characters fit all the stereotypes, too. Among the three principal would-be couples, there’s the true romantic (Lydia), her boy-next-door male counterpart (Nikos), the woman-without-a-man-is-like-a-fish-without-a-bicycle militant feminist (Thyona), the girly-girl fembot (Olympia), the hyper-macho hunk (Constantine), and the studly jock who’s struggling a bit with what it means to be a man (Oed). The point Mee makes is, simply, Love Conquers All (even murder, but we won’t go there). He also pretty much says Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry (and just to be sure we get that, the theme from Love Story, “Where Do I Begin?,” is prominently played in the background). I’ve said this before in other contexts, but this play strikes me as a case of the writer having a plot-and-structure concept first and then devising a theme as an excuse to use it. Mee doesn’t have much to say about his chosen topic that we need to hear (again)—and if you’re familiar with The Suppliant Women, even the plot provides no surprises.
So what’s the use of presenting Big Love? Well, if you like theatrical high-jinks, it’s all on Landau’s staging. I don’t know what the production at ATL, directed by Les Waters, was like, of course, or any of the intervening revivals, but the STC production was loaded with theatrical gimmickry. If you like that kind of theater pyrotechnics, you’d love Big Love. I don’t know how much of the production spectacle was Mee’s concept and how much was Landau’s input, but the show was a smorgasbord of effects and staging gags, from projections and videos to sound FX to background music and songs (mostly of the vintage pop variety) to WWF wrestling moves (lots and lots) and football training routines. All in all, it was quite a workout—but, like the platitudes about love that serve as Mee’s theme, the production’s theatricality seemed essentially pointless—a lot of flash to fill the time and stage but to little purpose.
Some of that flash was even spectacular, as in the entrance of the three fiancés: to the sounds of a hovering helicopter, the men, dressed in flight suits and helmets, rappelled down thick ropes from door-like openings high up the back wall. (The wall was a photo rendering of a blue sky with soft, wispy clouds floating in it and a rippling turquoise sea below. The openings turned it into a Magritte-like vision. I didn’t say the theatrics weren’t clever.) They even stripped off their flight suits, like Sean Connery taking off his wetsuit in Dr. No, to reveal tuxedos beneath. The (almost antiseptically spare) sets at STC were designed by Brett J. Banakis, with lighting by Scott Zielinski, sound by Kevin O’Donnell, and projections by Austin Switser, all of whom, along with costume designer Anita Yavich, did magnificent jobs making an essentially shallow vessel seem full of life and moment. O’Donnell, in particular, livened up the performance with his orchestration of the music designated by Mee, which included Pachelbel’s Canon, Handel’s Largo, Ocean Suite by Steven Halpern, and “Machine” from William Bolcom’s Fifth Symphony, among other selections. (The production also included performances by cast members of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” sung by the three sisters; Michael Jackson’s “Bad”; and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours,” all staged by Landau as presentational “concert” turns with hand-held mikes and Motown-like footwork.)
The performances, as usual at Signature, were excellent. Everyone devised strong, individuated characters even from Mee’s shallow script. Especially fine were Jones’s Lydia, who took a role that could easily be wishy-washy and made her a strong, independent, and even valiant woman; Sadleir, whose Giuliano is more complex and delightful than the slightly fem gayboy probably ought to have been (he did a terrific little silent bit in a wedding gown while other, more intense issues were unfolding center stage); and Cohen as the apparently tradition Italian mama from a past generation, who, if she’s a little clichéd, still took control and put an end to the turmoil. Sergeant and Winters, as Thyona and Olympia, were fine but couldn’t rise above their characters’ single notes. (They also seemed to have been cast for their looks as much as their acting talent. Sergeant has the build of not only an athlete, but an MMA fighter and her hair and make-up enhanced her facial resemblance to one of those really fierce masks you see in African art museums. Winters has the slightly puffy physique of a baby-doll woman—not unlike the one played by Carroll Baker in the Tennessee Williams film of that title, as a matter of fact—and the long, blond hair of a popular high school girl.) Sergeant was required to play at one, high level of intensity, always at top force and volume. Winters, whose Olympia goes whichever way the wind is blowing (even unto a little lesbian dalliance with Eleanor, the married American houseguest played by Ellen Harvey who lives by the principle that What Happens In Italy, Stays In Italy), is the sister whose first concern after arriving at Piero’s villa is that there aren’t enough “products”— “Soaps, you know, and creams”—available for their use.
As for Landau’s direction, aside from the spectacle she sewed into the performance text, it didn’t so much enhance Mee’s script as trick it out. She cast the play well, of course, but I can’t point to any well-considered guidance she seemed to have provided her actors that helped make Mee’s points or developed his ideas beyond the bromides they were at the outset. She didn’t do anything wrong, mind you; she just did for the staging what Mee did for the dramaturgy: put up a lot of what we used to call “eyewash” in the army—showy touches (visual aids, charts, hand-outs) we’d add into a briefing to make it seem more substantial than it really was but which were essentially meaningless.
As for the published press notices, I’ve already mentioned how Brantley seems to feel about this playwright’s work. The Timesman continued that Mee “has been praised and dissed for riffing wild on venerable works . . . with what usually registers more as hellbent madness than discernible method.” In fact, Brantley, with whom I’ve often had differences, fairly summed up what I’ve been saying:
Granted, he talks a lofty game. About his RKO-musical-style version of “The Trojan Women,” on which he collaborated with Ms. Landau in 1996, he explained he was “incorporating shards of our contemporary world to lie, as in a bed of ruins, within the frame of the classical world.” I guess you could say that’s what he’s doing with “Big Love,” too. But to what end?
The Times reviewer also observed that Mee’s points about love are “well-recycled opinions” which the characters expound on “at tedious length.” In the end, though he allowed that “there’s sure a lot to look at,” he concluded that “for all this hyperkineticism, ‘Big Love’ fails to generate any genuine friction.”
In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli, despite Mee’s return to ancient Greece for his plot, stated that “the story’s impact isn’t lessened—far from it.” Indeed, Vincentelli added that because Landau “does a good job channeling the play’s anarchic energy,” the review-writer found that “the Greek-tragedy stuff actually feels less dated than some of the pop references.” The Daily News’s Joe Dziemianowicz affirmed that “the star of the show is Landau’s imaginative staging” despite the “very good and game for anything” cast. The Newsman concluded, “In the end the message that ‘love trumps all’ is pretty straightforward stuff—sort of like finding a toaster in a Tiffany box. But it’s fun watching the wrapping, ribbons and bows get torn off.”
“Under the direction of Mee’s longtime collaborator, Tina Landau, all eleven fine actors communicate vividly,” wrote the reviewer for the New Yorker in its capsule notice in “Goings On About Town.” Calling the play “epic in scope and open of heart” in Time Out New York, Adam Feldman reported, “There are striking monologues in verse” in the “postmodern approach” that permits Mee “frequent jokey anachronisms, musical interludes and opportunities for spectacle” (some of which “seem trite “). Feldman complained, “Yet although these elements come across clearly in Tina Landau’s busy revival, they don’t quite come together,” citing that the “rush of flat activity gets tiring, and Mee’s philosophizing can seem shapeless.” The man from TONY concluded (much as I did): “The production is admirable, but I wasn’t fully taken.”
In the cyber press, Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp called Big Love a “kooky spin on” Aeschylus’ tragedy which is “being given an enchanting production” at Signature. “[W]ith musical interludes and eye popping stage business,” Sommer reported, Landau turned the Greek tragedy “into an exhilarating paean to love,” which the director and her design team accomplish with “great flair.” On TheaterMania, David Gordon christened Landau’s “explosive” staging of Big Love “Fearless” because, he asserted, it “isn't afraid of anything.” Of the playwright’s classical source material, Gordon stated, “In Mee's hands, it's scary how relevant it is,” in spite of the fact that it “is more of a collage than a play.” It’s a “a well-run circus that is seemingly spinning violently out of control,” Gordon wrote, in “Landau’s unapologetically chaotic vision.” Even as the production includes “frenzied physicality that extends into the auditorium,” the cyber reviewer found that “Landau skillfully guides her first-rate company through this crazy world.”
On New York Theater, Jonathan Mandell called the STC production of Big Love an “astonishing revival” that “surrounds us with a soothing and soaring beauty” and “is, in turns, playful, funny, sexy, chaotic, bloody, and shocking.” New York Arts Review’s Greg Bauer complained that Mee’s “attempts to mix myth, music, and modern entertainment with poor results” meant that “the incoherent stretches of the play, though well-staged, are sunk by the few moments of lucid dramaturgy.” Bauer concluded, “The Signature Theatre threw an impressive array of technical theatre craft at this production . . . . However, all efforts are thwarted by the author’s shortcomings at telling a simple tale. The result is that Big Love remains a thesis, but offers no logic or satisfaction at its final curtain.” In contrast, pronouncing the production and play “Excellent. Most excellent” on New York Theatre Guide, Tulis McCall noted that “Charles Mee lives on a planet very near the one that Bill Irwin calls home” and observed that at the end of Big Love, “we are left to screw our heads and hearts back into place” because Mee “switches your head and heart positions.” McCall concluded that “the best part is that you never QUITE get them back in place the way they were before.” On Theatre Pizzazz!, Carol Rocamora described STC’s presentation of “Mee’s playful version” of The Suppliant Women as “a dazzling production” given “wildly expressionistic, exuberant” staging by Landau. Rocamora’s conclusion was that “Mee’s lavish treatment of this eternal topic remains unapologetic and enduring, owing to its originality, vitality, and heart.”
I have no gripe against collage, pastiche, or bricolage, as I said, but I object to theater that has little or nothing to say and expends a lot of energy to say it. Mee’s chosen style of dramaturgy is fine with me—if he can manage to make a worthwhile point with it. As far as I’m concerned, Big Love isn’t in that category. If you like flash, then Big Love might engage you.
[For reasons I can’t explain, a number of my usual sources of published reviews apparently didn’t run notices of STC’s Big Love. Variety, which normally covers Signature shows, may have decided, after reviewing several regional productions over the years, not to review another revival of the 15-year-old play—even though this was the New York première. The same rationale shouldn’t apply, however, to New York magazine, Long Island’s Newsday, and the Village Voice, which habitually cover productions at major New York rep companies like Signature. Also absent from my search was Entertainment Weekly, as well as Broadway World and Talkin’ Broadway, websites that have seemed to cover nearly everything that appears in New York City theaters.