A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union 292-7676, $10-$42 7:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2.p.m. select matinees ends Sunday, May 20
IT WASN'T UNTIL the denouement of Charles L. Mee's Big Love that the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I started scribbling joyous exclamations in my notebook. It shouldn't have taken that long. Big Love, which uses Aeschylus' The Suppliants as an ecstatic springboard for a discussion of the battle of the sexes, is a major work, flawed in a way that lesser plays on the topic should be so lucky to achieve, carrying its mistakes on its back with a regal humanity. That you have to dig for its considerable accomplishments beneath the tissue paper of its colorful packaging is the major failing of director Brian Kulick's production.
The evening begins with what a more gushing critic might call a "wow": a burst of music and the sight of stunned young bride Lydia (Hope Chernov) descending the staircase of Walt Spanger's superlative, sloping, aquamarine landscape to slip out of her wedding gown and sink, naked, into a small round pool of water. She and her more excitable sisters—fierce Thyona (Danielle Skraastad) and giddy Olympia (Kirsten Potter)—are three of 50 siblings who have landed in present-day Italy in a desperate escape from an enforced betrothal to 50 grooms. The inevitable pursuit by said men and the "rescue" attempt by a local land baron (Peter Jacobs), his gay brother Giuliano (Jose J. Gonzales), and their steely, wise old mother Bella (Judith Roberts), forms the story from which Mee launches a verbal assault on the exasperating social politics that keep all of us from living in any kind of harmony, marital or otherwise.
Mee places himself at the center of a troubled circle and moves around it to extend a hand to his people in every direction. But director Kulick lands on top of it like his paratrooping would-be husbands, who drop in from the ceiling to take back their "property"—he has a sense of what's his, but he claims it too bluntly. The show lacks real fury and instead settles for a cartoonish cuteness: a too-roundly choreographed frenzy that has the sisters smashing their wedding gifts to the tune of the "You Don't Own Me" cover from The First Wives Club soundtrack. It never goes up against the ropes the way it would like you to think it does, though the actors get some fun out of a comic motif that has them flinging themselves at the floor in frustrated protest of their gender inequalities.
RATHER DISAPPOINTINGLY, Kulick is blithely chewing on what should be our own contemplation. Mee may run off at the mouth like Lydia's ardent suitor Nikos (Michael Bakkensen, who charmingly maneuvers his way through one of the playwright's more intricate speeches), but his mess of words is headed toward a fixed point—a point at which Kulick chooses to arrive by cleaner methods. Where Mee moves from one distressed monologue to the next, capturing with astonishing consideration and validity the concerns of chauvinists, feminists, hedonists, et al., Kulick is adorning them in candied stereotypes and shoving us to the center toward the middle-of-the-road sweethearts played by Chernov and Bakkensen. Aside from a jewel of a turn by Roberts as the crafty matriarch, the young couple are the only two allowed to craft whole people (a promising Potter, in particular, is sunk by directorial gimmickry that has her giggling like an idiot).
As a proclamation of his right to marry, Thyona's right-wing bridegroom Constantine (C.J. Wilson, tossing off sexist rhetoric with uproarious machismo) delivers a dangerously gorgeous, immaculately constructed monologue that "justifies," of all things, physical violence against women, claiming that "Time itself is an act of rape." Though I don't think ACT's production is the one to accommodate such darkly ruminative moments, I do suggest you take the chance to hear them.