Theater Review - My big fat Greek tragedy

Big Love weds classic text to wild effects

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to witness the union of this Old World text with this edgy theatrical sensibility.

On the bride’s side, we have Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women, given a modern spin and retitled Big Love by Charles L. Mee. Big Love is betrothed to Out of Hand Theater — at least through Oct. 18, thanks to the troupe’s ingenious production. Out of Hand’s Big Love indeed proves a blessed event, even though it’s not so much a story of developing characters as it is a pageant of speeches and stunts.

Out of Hand gives Big Love the complete outdoor wedding treatment. The audience sits in folding chairs on the terrace of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. The stage includes a bower with small trees just beyond it, and the cast enters and exits up a red carpet. An onstage bathtub strikes the only incongruous note, and the play begins when a single bride (Maria Parra) files in, sheds her clothes and steps into it.

She introduces herself as Lydia to the twinkle-toed gent (Geoff Uterhardt) who discovers her. Lydia explains that she and her 49 Greek sisters fled an arranged marriage to their 50 American cousins, and have just arrived in romantic Italy seeking refuge.

Lydia is soon joined by angry Thyona (Maia Knispel) and air-headed Olympia (Rebecca Dutton), who laboriously drag in their luggage, and then break into a version of “You Don’t Own Me” while Knispel smashes crockery. Dutton gets the play’s funniest lines: On arrival, she requests a moisturizing body wash, and later, like a moth to the flame, she’s drawn to the wedding presents that start arriving.

The brides beg and hector wealthy Piero (Ken Hornbeck) for sanctuary, but he’s reluctant to get involved. Trouble arrives, with the roar of a helicopter, in the person of the 50 grooms, led by thuggish Oed (Steven Westdahl), sensitive Nikos (Charlie Burnett) and bullying Constantine (Adam Fristoe), the latter who embodies America’s “imperial” attitudes and demands their brides.

With a plot hinging on women’s rights, Big Love could take place in an orthodox Muslim country. But Mee’s adaptation mostly focuses on the frustrations and paradoxes of modern sexual dynamics. Thyona rants against traditional gender roles, repeatedly shouting, “I don’t need a man,” and hurling herself to the stage. (Knispel embraces such kamikaze physicality that you admire her nerve while hoping she doesn’t hurt herself.)

In the second act, the three grooms rage against rigid masculine definitions in a sequence staged like a full-contact football practice. It segues to Constantine’s speech justifying male dominance that, at first, makes an uncomfortable amount of sense. But while Parra and Burnett have sweet, credible scenes as a couple falling in love despite the coercive situation, Big Love’s roles tend to be emblems more than individuals.

It’s as if director Ariel de Man made a conscious trade-off between character depth and wild theatricality. Some of the acting proves limited — Knispel, Fristoe and Uterhardt tend to rely on a restricted range of moods and moves — but Out of Hand made the right choice to make Love as big as possible.

The anything-goes format gives Uterhardt license to amusingly croon old standards like the cheesiest of wedding singers. The production builds to a fascinating, dialogue-free sequence of wedding and reception, in which stilted formalities give way to raucous celebration, and then ... Let’s just say that at this wedding party, instead of the groom cutting the cake, the bride cuts the groom.

One hopes the weather will cooperate for the open-air production of Big Love, which proves to be Out of Hand’s most successful staging yet. The young company has yet to try its hand at a mature, conventional drama. But in organizing memorable events, you can’t fault them for lack of commitment.