Even before it begins, the astonishing revival of “Big Love,” one of Charles Mee’s most popular plays, surrounds us with a soothing and soaring beauty. The set by Brett Banakis is, per Mee’s instructions, more like an art installation, with an alluring video projection of a rippling ocean beneath a glorious blue sky; a ceiling hung with hundreds of upside down floral bouquets; a rack of glowing, gleaming champagne glasses; random videos on the side walls of the theater, such as a humming bird shown slowed down in mid-flight; a clean white stage empty save for an old-fashioned ceramic white tub.
Into this restful scene storms a woman in a filthy, torn wedding dress. She strips naked, and climbs into the tub. She is Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones), one of 50 sisters escaping on what was to be their wedding day from forced marriage to 50 cousins they do not love. But the men are not so easily dissuaded, dropping from helicopters in a reconnaissance mission like so many Navy SEALS – if Navy SEALS dressed in sharp black designer duds with a white wedding carnation in their lapels. And so the women decide the only way to get rid of these grooms is to murder them.
What unfolds on stage over the 90 minutes of “Big Love” is, in turns, playful, funny, sexy, chaotic, bloody, and shocking.
This modern adaptation of a quartet of plays by Aeschylus (only one of which has survived intact) follows Mee’s classic approach to classic texts, as he laid out in his 1999 memoir, “A Nearly Normal Life,” published about a year before Big Love’s premiere – “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….” This is the sort of theater piece where the ancients break into Lesley Gore’s 1960’s hit “You Don’t Own Me,” there’s abrupt startling bloodshed, and the sudden extensive use of a trampoline…and all three seem a natural fit.
Director Tina Landau, Mee’s longtime collaborator, has assembled a design team and an 11-member cast that couldn’t be better, made up of such familiar faces as Jones (American Idiot, Passing Strange), Lynn Cohen and Bobby Steggert, and such relative newcomers as Stacey Sargeant and Ryan-James Hatanaka whose credits include, not surprisingly, an MTV show entitled “Eye Candy.”
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At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
By Charles Mee; directed by Tina Landau; sets by Brett J. Banakis; costumes by Anita Yavich; lighting by Scott Zielinski; sound by Kevin O’Donnell; projections by Austin Switser; fight direction by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet; production stage manager, Lori Lundquist
Cast: Emmanuel Brown (Oed), Lynn Cohen (Bella), Ellen Harvey (Eleanor), Ryan-James Hatanaka (Constantine), Christopher Innvar (Piero), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Lydia), Preston Sadleir (Giuliano), Stacey Sargeant (Thyona), Nathaniel Stampley (Leo), Bobby Steggert (Nikos) and Libby Winters (Olympia).
Running time: 100 minutes
Big Love is scheduled to run through March 15, 2015