Apparently playwright Charles Mee has been garnering a fair amount of attention over the past few years, but it somehow escaped me. So I have no particular expectations when Big Love begins with a group of young women clustered in the wings at both sides of the playing area, all wearing wedding dresses. Then one on each side starts walking a diagonal line to stage center, carrying a leaking sieve that she upends into a bathtub; behind her comes a second wedding-gowned woman, wiping up the spilled water. Meanwhile, a male voice explains that these women are now in the underworld, having committed a notable atrocity, and are attempting to cleanse themselves.
Pretty soon we learn that — in a plot lifted from Aeschylus — fifty sisters have been promised by their father to fifty cousins; on their wedding day, they flee from Greece to Italy in search of sanctuary. They land at the home of hyper-civilized Piero, who wants to help but doesn't want trouble — let alone a permanent houseful of immigrants. We meet his nephew, fey little Giuliano, and his eccentric mother, Bella. And then the bridegrooms arrive by helicopter in search of their errant brides.
What on earth is this play about? Love, obviously, and sex roles — but not in any small or reductive sense; it moves easily from the comic and contemporary to the atavistic and universal. The women may or may not hate their prospective bridegrooms, but they definitely hate having been promised in marriage without their own consent. They include Olympia, who would have liked a more fashionable wedding dress, wants to be pampered and would probably spend the rest of her days singing "I Feel Pretty" if she could; Lydia, who's just plain baffled by everything that's going on, and who comes to love her betrothed, Nikos; and proto-feminist Thyona, who believes that "the male is a biological accident" and warns Olympia that women like her end up murdered in ravines. When the plea for asylum fails, it's Thyona who persuades her sisters to murder their grooms. You realize the truth behind her seemingly overblown diatribes when you meet Constantine, the man she's supposed to marry, an archetypal figure who evokes the soldiers who storm into villages to rape, kill and destroy, and laments that violence is seen as desirable when protection is required by a woman or an entire society, but is forbidden and despised in private life. The words are often chilling, but the scenes in which the men and women, sequentially, express their rage, repeatedly falling and leaping up again, are simply hilarious.
Big Love is frequently astonishingly funny, sometimes deeply beautiful. We find ourselves tearing up a little when Giuliano speaks of the older man who scared but perhaps loved him, when Bella reminisces about her dead husband and in response Giuliano starts singing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" very gently and softly, a cappella. What's wonderful about this play is the melding of elements — not just words, not just the creative marriage with an ancient text, but also all kinds of movement, gestures, symbols. I can't tell how much of this was the contribution of the playwright and how much came from the eleven-month-long period of rehearsal and collaboration undertaken by director Colleen Mylott and the Aluminous Collective, her company of onetime Naropa students, but there's a humor here, a resonance and richness, that's very compelling. As when, for example, two people who have just realized their love for each other perform an ecstatic gliding dance on roller skates — the unexpectedness and freedom, the swooping and joining, the way each step whooshes the stepper far, far along in time and distance. And also the songs, monologues, synchronized movements; the silent, constantly present chorus of ship-bound brides; the extra, non-speaking groomsmen. Not to mention the cake and the way the cake is used, the talented and impeccably bow-tied four-man band, and the blood that eventually stains the pure white wedding dresses.
Though there are strong actors in the primary roles — Nicholas Barth, David Ortolano, Joan Bruemmer, Kevin Poole, Cynthia Ward, Johanna Walker, Carol Katz as a weirdly otherworldly Bella, and Elizabeth Watt spitting fire as Thyona — none of the acting feels actory. There's a quietly unpretentious quality to the proceedings that lets the play's absurdity, the craziness constantly verging on profundity, take focus. You can see how Big Love could be staged as simply swift, clever, satiric commentary; the Aluminous Collective makes it that and much, much more.