Sinking Into Strange Lands

Ancient and modern co-ride in two Cap Hill productions.

You gotta love the Seattle theater scene. Where else can you see, in a single week, two radically important reinventions of the longest-running hits in drama history? At one end of the spectrum, our oldest, richest company, the Rep, gives us Seamus Heaney’s Sophocles update, The Cure at Troy, a must-see for its awesome set and sensitive poetics. And in a funky, bunkerlike Capitol Hill basement, one of our newest, poorest companies, Balagan Theatre, flings itself into Charles Mee’s infinitely wilder takeoff on Aeschylus, Big Love. It’s the most spirited and ambitious Balagan show I’ve seen.

While Heaney pays painstaking attention to the original text, Mee uses Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women as a diving board for a cannonball plunge into a foaming ocean of idiosyncratic modern allusions. In the original story, 50 women flee to a Greek isle, hotly pursued by their 50 Egyptian cousins, who plan to wed them against their will. They beg for protection. The island’s king resists the Egyptian invasion, but he falls and gets replaced by the girls’ father. Dad says: Marry the Egyptians, then kill them on the wedding night. Forty-nine maidens obey; one falls in love and disobeys. She’s put on trial, but Aphrodite pardons her because love is the ultimate law.

For Aeschylus, the tale’s about conflicting duties: Should the king risk war to honor his obligation as host? Should he dictate policy or defer to the electorate? Should maidens be loyal to husbands or fathers? For Mee, it’s all about Me Generation issues—self-fulfillment, sex roles, jokes as a philosophy of life. He turns Greek stichomythia—that rat-a-tat exchange of one-liners—into screwball-comedy shtick, alternating with violence resembling Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty enacted in a Tom-and-Jerry cartoon.

The fragmented dialogue riffs on lines from love guru Leo Buscaglia, the 11th-century Japanese Pillow Book, feminist travel writer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, and demented man-hating feminist Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol. Mee’s main inspiration was what he called his tempestuous “first love” with actress Laurie Williams. After three divorces, at age 57, he fell in love with her as if hit by lightning, wrote three plays for her, then got abruptly dumped.

Big Love‘s suppliant maidens stake out three positions: Thyona (Wonder Russell) is the feminist hardass, Olympia (Virginia Gabby) the girly-girl, and Lydia (Kaitie Warren) in the middle, though more erotically passionate than either sister. They flee from Greece to an Italian villa, where they get love advice from Bella, a crone with an outrageous Italian accent (Richard Clairmont, sporting gray eyebrows bushy as John L. Lewis’).

Like John Belushi on “Weekend Update,” the women start out calm and rational and wind up flinging themselves to the ground in a frenzy. When the marriage-minded guys arrive, they prove even crazier. Bachelor number one, Constantine (sinisterly magnetic Curtis Eastwood), talks like a thuggish Neil LaBute hero. “What is it you women want? You want to be strung up with hoods and gags and blindfolds, stretched out on a board with weights on your chest? You want me to sew your legs to the bed and pour gasoline on you and light you on fire? Is that what I have to do to keep you?”

His mono-eyebrowed brother Oed (Sam Hagen) is inclined to rip off his shirt and hurl buzzsaw blades in rage. But brother Nikos (Ben Harris) is more like his fated mate Lydia—he can get carried away by the madness all around, but he’s moderate by nature. Harris and Warren remind me of Juno‘s nice guy Michael Cera and nice girl Molly Ringwald in her ’80s heyday. Warren’s so nice, she does not perform the opening nude scene in a bathtub naked, as the script and common sense require, but clad in chaste white undies.

Director Jake Groshong and fight choreographer Kevin Inouye have their hands full with the accelerating fracas, the most artful anarchy Balagan has staged. I think the cast’s many bruises were not achieved by makeup. The stage is padded like a wrestling mat, and by the bloody finale, the mat’s intersecting jigsaw parts are ripped out in a gratifying mess.

There’s athletic grace (plus a flash of male nudity and rude gaiety) in the physical shenanigans. But the high points are mostly comic: Clairmont’s old lady sadly stomping tomatoes that represent sons who disappoint her; the maidens’ sassy repartee; Gabby’s aria to the charms of “Estee Lauder 24 Karat Color Golden Body Crème and Mac lip gloss in Pink Poodle.” It’s too PG to be fully orgiastic—to capture love with the full stunning force Mee intended. But all in all, it’s way more fun to watch than The Cure at Troy.

Theater Schmeater also boasts a show that reaches for the stars from a basement venue, David Greig’s The American Pilot. That Pilot (played by Daniel Wood) is just a device to explore the characters of a tiny village in a nameless, clearly Islamic nation. The Farmer (Jose Amador) finds the flyboy, who’s crashed his jet, and takes him home. He’s torn between helping the poor bleeding foreigner and protecting his own community.

But what is The Farmer’s community? His first duty is to his wife Sarah (Lori Stein) and headstrong 16-year-old daughter Evie (Carolyn Marie Monroe). His country’s central rulers are at war with the local insurgents—led by The Captain (Chris Macdonald) and his underling, The Translator (Ryan Higgins), the only semi-competent English speaker within many miles—who rule The Farmer’s village without pity. The Farmer defers to the cosmopolitan, cynical wisdom of The Trader (Paul Custodio), who’s out to trade The Pilot for whatever he can get. His duty is profit.

The characters are each marvelously drawn. A hulking man, Amador invests The Farmer with immense integrity. Macdonald is tough (he reminds me of Ed Harris in Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love), yet humanizes The Captain—a cruel martinet with mirrored shades like a racist Southern cop, but also a guy in a tight spot, low on cash and hope. Capitalizing on his American prize is his last chance to extend his losing revolution. The Translator more cruelly suggests that a videotaped beheading might raise the most money and notoriety. Higgins skillfully conveys callow, arrogant ruthlessness.

Stein gives Sarah an authentic wary stolidity. Monroe is a radiant dream, and winsomely amusing when teen Evie uses her TV-derived English to offer the downed airman food: “I am breakfast! Eat me up!” Wood could scarcely be better as The Pilot, but perhaps because he’s an American imagined by a Scot, he’s the least-developed character, with no inner life. The villagers get soliloquies. The Pilot just suffers, rants, enthuses about rap tunes on his iPod, and fails to communicate.

All the roles are schematic, and the plot wanders to a flashy conclusion without exactly having a point. But fine acting, Andy Clawson’s eerily beautiful music, and David Gassner’s sharp direction make the show gripping moment to moment. It’s another basement-dwelling show that’s quite on a par with what’s at the ritzy Rep. Sometimes the best things in life are cheap.