Fistful of Love

Manbites Dog Theater and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
Through May 31

If you were looking to produce a theatrical comedy, neither Aeschylus nor Charles Mee would likely make your short list. The former was one of the founders of tragedy in Greek theater. The latter’s a contemporary playwright intent on probing the sharp and broken edges of civilized behaviorthe stuff we really don’t want to talk about as a cultureby juxtaposing ancient and classical texts against modern-day blog postings, old country and pop songs, classical music and the odd snippet of modern dance choreography.

Mee adapted Aeschylus’ Suppliants, a tale of forced marriages and their subsequent sundering, in his 2000 play Big Love. I saw the world premiere of Big Love at the Humana Festival in Louisville that year. The broken pavement of Mee’s script veered from Cole Porter to Grand Guignol, as 50 Greek women in bridal dresses sought asylum in Italy from 50 grooms intent on enforcing prenuptial contracts: ones made at the women’s birth.

Mee’s work comments intelligently on the humanitarian treatment of refugees, the rights of women and the contingencies those civilized institutions are entirely dependent on. Beyond that, revealing monologues in Big Love probe the specific cultural conditions that make men and women turn love into a literal battlefield.

Killer material, in short, if you’re on the lookout for big-time yuks.

Adapter and director Jay O’Berski’s concept in this production is to take Big Love, flip the genders and splice in largely rueful talk about sex and relationships, not only from other plays in the Mee canon, but from Virginia Woolf and Charles Bukowskian odd couple to be sure, but one that makes increasing sense as the evening proceeds.

In the process, O’Berski cuts the flying crockery and flung tomatoesbut adds karaoke versions of avant-chanteurs, venerable R&B, smoove music and ludicrous covers of the Bee Gees and Dr. Dre (by way of Ben Folds) for, um, seasoning. Yeah.

O’Berski can take this degree of theatrical license due to a program of Mee’s invention, called “The (Re)making Project.” On his Web site, the playwright openly permits artists to ransack his scripts for characters, plots and themes in order to make totally new works from them. But he does so while indulging in more than a little genius-by-association in the process. Since, he notes, that he, Brecht and Shakespeare have all freely pillaged from historical and contemporary sources without attribution, presumably lesser artists should be able to do so as well. (How magnanimous.) As artistic issues involving intellectual property and copyright are debated, Mee’s project is certainly of the present moment in our culture. It’s also one of the cannier bids for literary immortality I’ve seen in a while.

When 50 menor actually the three we see on stage in this productionare cast as grooms trying to escape an equal number of unusually insistent brides, Mee’s discourse on coercion is burlesqued into an odd conflation: say, Bridezillas meets Sadie Hawkins Day.

Yes, logic is the first thing out the window here: In real life, sexual refugees presumably don’t seductively croon “Float On” seconds after detailing their abuse. Still, the moment pays comic dividends, as do numerous instances where the gender-based discourse gets flipped during the evening. Women like Monica Byrne’s Tina go ballistic, and men like Lucius Robinson’s Olympio complains about the lack of suitable grooming products in their exile. In the hot tub, the guys’ leader, LaMark Wright as Lydio, grouses about how women are totally out of touch with their feelings, while assertive women like Dana Marks’ Nika and Lormarev Jones’ Etta wish guys knew how to do, you know, regular stuff.

Those with keen ears, though, will pick up that the cultural charges and countercharges lodged between the characters actually switch back on several occasions. Who’s really non-communicative, emotionally opaque or passive aggressive? The not-that-obvious answer: We all are, sooner or later.

While a sextet of guys and gals tries to figure out how to relate, Tom Marriott’s Hank looks on, a grizzled, battered, nearly Tiresian figure. Worse for the wear from the gender wars and aching, as Leonard Cohen put it, in the places he used to play, Hank has experienced most of the misfires that come between women and men. (These are documented in Jim Haverkamp’s amusing black-and-white film sequence documenting a marriage ceremony, one apparently equal parts game of Red Rover and battlefield rout.) Channeling Bukowski, toasting interrelational carnage, Marriott’s character is sore from, but somehow still amused by, the broils past and those still yet to come.

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