The inside of the Galvin Playhouse at ASU Tempe smells just awful, like a huge malfunctioning bathroom. (Like sewage, but in a domesticated way -- I don't want to make it sound even worse than it is.) If I were an investigative reporter, I'd try to find out why and what they're going to do about it, but I'm sure they are doing whatever they can. [UPDATE: Mystery solved.]
You just might want to bring a hankie with a few drops of pleasant aromatic oil on it in case it's still like that when you go to Big Love, which you have to do because it's so, so good. It's why people other than college students should be glad we have college theater in the Valley.
Little did playwright Charles L. Mee know in 2000 that when he called a play Big Love it would come to be the title of a trendy HBO series about a polygamist as well. Nobody in this play has more than one wife -- in fact, ultimately, scarcely anyone has a wife at all.
The script's based on Aeschylus' assumed series of plays (only one, The Suppliants, exists in print) about the Danaides, 50 sisters who fled an arranged marriage in the world's first boat. Heavy. And it gets heavier, as the 50 grooms come after the ladies, who've sought refuge on a neighboring island.
Much is made of Mee's collage-like way of making plays -- that the old Greek work is just a jumping-off place -- but it doesn't seem all that radically different or non-classical to me. It's very cool, though. The action unfolds at Piero's lovely, hypersensual, contemporary Italian villa, beautifully suggested by Jeannie Bierne's scenic design that includes a live (or severely lifelike) olive tree and a marble bath sunken into an unnaturally bouncy slope of green lawn.
The first three brides to arrive onshore are the focus of the story. One, Thyona, is militantly opposed to the wholesale rape and subjugation of her sisters and herself. Another, Olympia, likes men and flirting and all things girly, as she explains to her de facto hosts when she asks whether they might have:
Oil of Olay Moisturizing Body Wash
John Freda Sheer Blond Shampoo and Conditioner for Highlighted Blonds
. . .
I know this is not a hotel, so you wouldn't have everything,
but maybe some Estee Lauder 24 Karat Color Golden Body Creme with Sunblock,
or Fetish Go Glitter Body Art in Soiree. . .
or some Prescriptives Uplift Eye Cream, not in the tube: firming,
Mac lip gloss in Pink Poodle
some things to make a woman feel
The third Danaid, Lydia (played by Lee Hanson, of whom I'm a huge fan), is a voice of compromise and reason, which means she's also confused.
Adam Pinti (also a favorite of mine) plays Piero as a chain-smoking, Malkovich-inflected charmer -- you know he's useless at best and treacherous at worst, but he's so unabashed about it, we almost lose what the play has to say regarding patriarchy, democracy, liberty, and security, because he just makes it so much fun. Drew Ignatowski, as his young nephew Giuliano, is adorable as well, portraying a sweet young man who's in his element when surrounded by frilly gowns, Tiffany gift boxes, and the idea of romantic submission.
From time to time, huge, lush musical arrangements flow over the space, which paradoxically becomes more intimate the bigger and less natural the spectacle becomes. Sometimes people burst into a pop ballad or torch song. Sometimes over-dramatic projections fill the sky upstage, bigger than life. Sometimes the performers throw themselves onto the springy grass repeatedly like those young men humping the ottoman on YouTube, all the while delivering a choral recitation about what it's like to be a man or a woman. At other moments, precision unison dance numbers break out.
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Mee points out in his stage directions that the staging of Big Love should make clear that it's "not a text with brief dances and other physical activities added to it, but rather a piece in which the physical activities and the text are equally important to the experience," and director Kim Weild and her cast and staff have absolutely succeeded in that. It's like a circus, sketch comedy, an opera, and a religious experience all at once. Oh, and there's a bit of nudity and a lot of blood.
One act. Ninety minutes. No intermission. Possible smelliness. And you'll leave smiling and also a little creeped out in a way only a rare piece of theater can accomplish.
Big Love continues through Sunday, November 14, at the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse in the Nelson Fine Arts Center at 10th and Myrtle streets on Arizona State University's Tempe campus. For tickets, $8 to $23, call 480-964-6447 or click here.
Note: Sometimes we don't get to review something because it just doesn't run long enough in a constant form for us to see it and write about it in time for you to go see it. We're just sick about it! So if we were you, we'd try to see New Carpa Theater's The Manic Hispanic: On the Air, a short autobiographical play by and starring nationally renowned old school R&B DJ James Rivas, this weekend only at Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center, and "The Pandora Showcase," a fully staged retrospective of selected favorites from Arizona Women's Theatre's annual Pandora Festival of New Works, with one program this weekend and another November 19-20, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.