At Long Last Love

The Rude Mechs Fall Head Over Heels for Charles Mee's New Spin on 'The Suppliants'

Wedding Bell Blues (l-r):  Sarah Richardson, Lana Lesley,  and Shawn Sides rehearsing <i>Big Love</i>
Wedding Bell Blues (l-r): Sarah Richardson, Lana Lesley, and Shawn Sides rehearsing Big Love (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

You might as well not bother searching for it. You don't find it; it finds you.

And it finds you when you least expect it: when your back is turned, your guard is down, when you think you're safe from it.

Then it catches you unawares and nails you with a sucker punch. It rings your bell. It knocks you on your ass.

And suddenly, you find yourself flying into the arms of one you least expect to be with. Swooning over that which you previously could not abide. Doing things you never imagined you would -- or could -- do.

Love.

It'll get you every time, and you'll never see it coming. So it is in Charles Mee's Big Love, a vigorous update of one of the oldest plays known, The Suppliants, by that wily old Greek Aeschylus. It begins with 50 brides, all sisters, on the run from their collective nuptials to 50 grooms, all brothers and cousins of the sisters, because the women were contracted in marriage against their will. They've bolted from their native Greece and are seeking refuge in a villa on the Italian coast when their cousins catch up to them. Forced to the altar after all, the sisters then vow to kill their husbands on their wedding night. But into this charged environment strolls Love, sowing tenderness among bitter roots, drawing enemies together, sundering vows. Oh, grooms die, but the sisters' effort to protect themselves, to create their own justice, is altered dramatically by the presence of Love.

It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World:  Michael Mergen, Robert Newell,  and Atticus Rowe rehearsing <i>Big Love</i>
It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World: Michael Mergen, Robert Newell, and Atticus Rowe rehearsing Big Love (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

And as it is with the characters in Big Love, so it is with the Rude Mechanicals and the play itself. A mess of Rudes, the collective of wily young theatre artists that opens its own production of Big Love this week at the Off Center, were present at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., last year and went to the premiere production of the play. They'd heard the buzz around the festival that Big Love was a hot show, but they weren't really looking to be swept off their feet by it.

But then ... they ... were.

Somewhere between the opening moment, in which the bride Lydia slips completely out of her wedding dress and into an onstage bathtub, and the dramatic paramilitary-style arrival of the grooms by helicopter and the inevitable and yet surprise-filled wedding, with its cake fight and male striptease and smashing of china, and the slaughter of the grooms by the brides and the trial of the treasonous sister who would not kill, the Rudes found themselves unexpectedly and unabashedly head over heels for Big Love.

Maybe what seduced them was the sisters' chorus of Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me." Maybe it was the sisters angrily screaming "Why can't a woman be more like a man?!" as they threw themselves to the ground over and over until they collapsed with exhaustion. Or maybe it was the character Guiliano joyfully describing his Barbie and Ken collection. Or what company member Sarah Richardson calls the play's "spiritual robustness," with its ardent defense of justice over love, followed by a fervent defense of love over justice, followed by an eloquent catalogue of, as one character says, "the splendid variety of life on earth, good and bad, sweet and sour ... the glory of life." Maybe it was the Rudes' sense of the play as, in the words of Richardson, "a beautiful, beautiful love story, not just of romance but of love and society, love and community." Or maybe it was all of it.

Well, whatever it was that got to the Rudes, it bypassed the old analytical/critical judgment centers and shot straight to their hearts. Kirk Lynn remembers "a sort of feeling of disbelief to my own reactions. I found Big Love engaging me like a close friend ... both the genuine camaraderie and the ability to get tough and call me on my bullshit." He was not alone. His colleagues describe a similar affection for the piece, just as immediate, just as personal. Lana Lesley recalls leaving the play "just wanting to talk about it -- about how broad and far-reaching Chuck's ideas about love were, and how those ideas offered each person in the audience an opportunity to identify with someone specific in the play, or something specific in each person in the play, which is how I personally landed. I found something to empathize with in every character because while the plot is somewhat outlandish, the situations are real enough and beg you to consider where you might fall in that spectrum."

In fact, the Rudes' reaction to the piece was so intense that the troupe members laid claim to the play "immediately," Lynn says. "Instantaneously. Not after, but during I thought, 'This is a Rude Mechs show.'" Lesley says, "We immediately ran to the bar and all suggested it at once for our company. It's hard to say why, it was just reflexive, I think. The play spoke to us."

Lynn has some ideas as to what "temptations" led the Rudes "to this apple." "The most obvious was a play about three strong women. It's a gimme. I think the other is a pairing of sensibilities. We want to talk about big things, but we want to do it at a bar. The other Rudes have this nice gift of being able to create a heady play that engages our actual lives, the politics of the day, and offer a generous vision of what the world should be; they deliver it all with a sense of humor and give the audience a kick. Chuck Mee matches the sensibility. Let's break some hearts, have some laughs, let's break up and make out, let's solve some problems at the bar."

Sisters Doing It for Themselves: Richardson and Sides in rehearsal
Sisters Doing It for Themselves: Richardson and Sides in rehearsal

The kinship that Lynn sees in Mee can be spotted throughout the script for Big Love, as in this playwright's notation, set out, as is the entire play, in blank verse:

"Thyona meanwhile, unpacks wedding gifts from the trunk --

plates and glasses and cups and saucers,

and -- to set the scene for what kind of a play this is,

that it is 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 --

Goin' to the Chapel: Rehearsal photo, <i>Big Love</i>
Goin' to the Chapel: Rehearsal photo, Big Love (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

she hurls the plates and cups and glasses with all her force against the wall

shattering them into a million bits."

It's a strikingly theatrical moment, one fired by raw physicality and emotional force, that recalls Johnny Rotten's blistering audition for the Sex Pistols in the Rudes' Lipstick Traces or the "pschitter"-sparked food fights of their Ubu Roi or the smoldering dance breaks of Crucks or WAR, or ... well, you get the idea. The Rude Mechanicals are all about physicality fueling the theatrical experience. So seeing that specified in someone else's script is like catching their reflection in a glass. That's them. That's home.

However, Lynn points out, this playwright is doing more than providing showy opportunities to destroy crockery or emotional gymnastics: "Chuck also leaves room in his script for our actors. In Big Love, there are these paragraphs where he describes some outlandish ideas for physical action and then says, 'in this style.' In bobrauschenbergamerica [Mee's collaboration with director Anne Bogart and SITI Company], he has sections that just say 'country music song country music song country music song country music song country music song,' so you can fill in what that means to the company that is acting it. The script leaves room for actors, designers, directors in what is perhaps a more generous way than other scripts." Lesley concurs, adding that "Mee demands something huge of the director, designers, and cast simply by giving them so much room to move within his ideas. For example, a suggestion of 100 wine glasses and an olive tree, or a seductive, hostile butt dance -- these suggestions are there to tell everyone the door is wide open. It's a challenge -- a dialogue between the writer and the creators -- that you don't often encounter in scripts. It's liberating."

That the company would eventually produce Big Love may have been a foregone conclusion after Louisville -- and indeed, the Rudes added the play to their 2001 season by the end of last summer -- still, when these Rudes shared the script with others, they were encouraged to find responses just as strong as their own and just as strong a sense of it as ideal for the collective. Set designer Michael Raiford was taken with "the way the script balances image with storytelling. Reality with abstract. It moves delightfully between the everyday and the absurd. In that contrast is where it becomes a very particular and interesting event ... oh, and an interesting play as well. The script does a great job of creating an illusion and then destroying it. It plays on our societal fantasy of marriage, you know, the big promise: man ... woman ... bliss ... dot-dot-dot ... the big facade. How it explores and explodes those expectations is very fascinating. Finding the right space for this dance to take place in was equally fascinating." Costume designer Leslie Bonnell, who worked with the company on its Requiem for Tesla, was taken with the "absurd humor" of Big Love. But it's also really tender and the pain and suffering of love and relationships and gender identity are played out in a very original way." She "immediately loved it and thought it was a perfect match" for the company. "All the physical stuff and the humor is so right for those freakishly talented Rudes," she says. Raiford calls it "right up Rude Mech Ave. I think it simply presents the company with its next challenge. They have well established their desire to explore new avenues ... This is a wonderful new highway."

Despite the connection to the material and desire to take on the play themselves, even following the logic that Lynn applies, the pairing of the Rude Mechs and Big Love was not a natural thing. The script is more straightforward and, well, sincere than the Rudes' usual fare. "There are elements of traditional elegance and heartfelt honesty that are a challenge for us as artists," says Richardson. "We tend to do things that, while very sincere and heartfelt, have a sense of satire or cynicism or iconoclasm to them. And this piece won't let you do that. [Company member] Shawn [Sides] has to get up there and fall in love every night. I have to choose submission. It's really challenging to us as people. And it's really challenging to us as artists to embrace approaches that are new to us."

Lynn seconds the notion that "the greatest challenge for us with this script is sincerity," though he allows that "other Rudes might disagree with this, or at least enjoy arguing with me" about it. "In Big Love," he notes, "there is a lot of vulnerability, for lack of a better word. We have people saying, 'This is what love is to me. This is why I'm sad. This is why I can't give myself.' I think we might be more comfortable explaining Wittgenstein or making jokes about Chomsky, saying, 'Look, we're funny and smart and cool.' But if generosity is the key word here, then the vulnerability of giving is part of the parcel."

And so, the Rudes are making themselves vulnerable, giving of themselves. And the result, according to Richardson, is that "this whole production is a huge love affair for us. Everybody's in love with making this thing beautiful."

Love. The word pops up with everyone affiliated with the show. They're all in love with Love.

And the love is enduring, even through the hectic final days before opening. "We're in tech now," says Kirk Lynn, "and everybody is yelling and we're trying to get the cue right, and all trying to get our point across about how the scene should be, and still that speech that Karen [Kuykendall's character] gives about the man on the motorino that she loved just knocks me off my feet. The play is really this great ride. There's a line from a Replacements song "Alex Chilton" I always loved: "I'm in love, what's that song." If you don't know it, it's sort of about how you go to a concert and hear a band play and when they play that certain song you just fall in love, not with anybody or even the song, it's just the song takes over, and I think Big Love is doing that to me.

"A lot of art is packaged in a safe way, like a box of Tide. You can have your box of art and open it when you want to, and turn it off, and put it on a shelf, and close the book, and when you want to feel enlightened again or to be moved again, you can drag out your art and use it. Chuck's work seems messier than that. His play doesn't stay on the stage. Chuck talks about how some art, some plays he's seen don't seem to have room for him, and that he likes to make fractured art because it is more representative of his life and experience. What he calls fractured, I call generous. I think the fracturing leaves room for my life. Not only leaves room, but drags me in. I think Big Love drags you into it." end story


Big Love runs Aug. 31-Sept. 23 at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. Visit www.rudemechs.com or call 476-RUDE for info.

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