Jared Van Heel, airborne, appears with Brandon Johnson, left, and Jason Hicks in Big Love.
Romantic comedies never include enough blood. In film, we get promises broken with titles like the bloodless So I Married An Axe Murderer, and misleading massacres like True Romance with few laughs. On stage, we’re accustomed to Shakespeare’s violent love stories—Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream—but the comedy’s stilted and the killing genteel.
Charles L. Mee’s Big Love, however, helps close the gap between matters of the heart and scenes of carnage. In fact, Mee takes it upon himself to bridge quite a few disparate things with this play, as it spans roughly 2,500 years and auspiciously links classic Greek mythology to contemporary touchstones like Vera Wang wedding gowns and Estée Lauder body cream.
Mee is a heady playwright who maintains there is no such thing as an original story; most of the former history teacher’s work is lifted from classic literature and then scrambled with other material to make a modern-day mash-up. His own web site invites others to steal his material and do the same.
Big Love is based on Aechylus’ The Suppliant Women, a tale of 50 Greek brides collectively fleeing the altar of an arranged wedding to their 50 cousins. Mee stays true to the premise but douses it with contemporary diction, snappy one-liners and a barrage of intentionally ear-splitting music. The resulting play sometimes feels like a musical, at other times like traditional theater turned recklessly contemporary, and still other times like a linear narrative jerked onto chaotic tangents. It’s an assault of the senses. And in the University of Montana’s current production, directed by professor Noah Tuleja, everyone seems to revel in the hodgepodge.
The play keys on three of the 50 brides: conflicted Lydia (Maria Giarrizzo), bitterly tough Thyona (Whitney Wakimoto) and romantic Olympia (Jacqueline Davies). They’re seeking refuge in Italy at the palatial villa of Piero (Cody Hyslop), hoping to escape their suitors. Fat chance. Soon, their three respective would-be husbands arrive via helicopter: the earnest Nikos (Brandon Johnson), militant Constantine (Jason F. Hicks) and bashful Oed (Jared Van Heel). Other than Constantine, who’s a raging ass, the men aren’t necessarily bad guys. But Thyona’s ruthless skepticism keeps any nuptials at arm’s length, fueling an epic battle of the sexes.
Most of it works. Mee’s script is wry and outlandish, and this production hits those notes pitch perfect; Davies in particular is hilarious throughout. Mee’s play is also brimming with angst, anger and fear—tension delivered like a stomach punch. Wakimoto is, once again, especially excellent, just as she has been in smaller parts in Richard III, Bug and Endgame. What never really sticks is the love part, but I’m not sure how much it matters.
Two scenes best illustrate the flavor of this odd mix—in fact, the whole production. In a rare quiet moment, Nikos approaches Lydia about revisiting the idea of getting hitched. It plays like a scene from “Dawson’s Creek,” with hormones, anticipation and nervous humor all balled up into sweet dialogue. Nikos admits he’s always enjoyed Lydia’s company, and that maybe marriage starts with friendship and blooms from there. He mentions a courtship. He mentions volleyball. He mentions he wants a kiss. And then, at the tip of all that sexual tension, Coldplay’s “Fix You” bursts on at a deafening level and plays as they start to dance—for, like, the whole song. Never mind that Mee’s script calls for Bach’s “Air on a G String,” but four minutes of Coldplay? It’s so corny, it may be genius. Or a terrible mistake. Either way, just when you’re ready to puncture your own eardrums, the song ends; Lydia remembers she’s supposed to hate men, pushes Nikos away and runs off.
Thus starts the next scene, which is essentially a cure for Nikos’, um, frustration. He starts cursing and flailing as Filter’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot” gets turned up to 11 (Mee’s script called for Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Prelude to Te Deum” but here Filter does wonders). Soon Ode and Constantine join Nikos as the three men toss their bodies into the air and crash down on the stage repeatedly, like wrestlers jumping from the top rope. Constantine starts a rant about hitting a ball and regretting being a meathead and how “it wasn’t what I had in mind”—all the while still throwing himself to the ground as industrial rock blares. This mosh pit mimics an earlier tirade by the women about independence and not needing a man, only here Ode’s suddenly firing a paint ball gun against a wall and Constantine eventually breaks down crying. The spectacle is viscerally affecting, and I’m not just saying that because pretty much anything would be after four minutes of Coldplay.
The two scenes represent how much Big Love packs into a brisk 90 minutes. And that’s not to mention the other startling elements: the other guests at the villa who suggest, among other things, the best sexual position for deep penetration; the plate throwing; the nudity; the intermittent musical numbers by Piero’s gay brother; the food fight; and, of course, the promise of a climatic bloodbath.
Which brings us back to what Big Love is—a complex romantic comedy awash in blood. It’s an odd stew, and while parts are hard to digest, it’s tough to walk away without finding something to chew on.
Big Love continues at UM’s Masquer Theatre Thursday, April 26, to Saturday, April 28, and Tuesday, May 1, to Saturday, May 5. 7:30 PM. $11/$10 students, seniors.