This Is Who We Are #1: Rude Mechs' Big Love

A daily affirmation of Austin's creativity from the Chronicle archive

Our ability to experience art in person and with others is presently in lockdown, and we don't know when it will return, if ever. Local artists are already adapting to this situation – many sharing art online – which speaks to Austin's driving spirit of creativity. In tribute to that spirit, this series recalls past works that affirm our creative force.

This is who we are.

(l-r) Sarah Richardson, Lana Lesley, Shawn Sides, and Jon Watson in the Rude Mechs production of Big Love (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

From Sept. 14, 2001:

Big Love: Right Down to the Cells

The Off Center, through September 29, Running Time: 1 hr., 25 min.

Lydia is on trial for not killing her husband.

She had pledged to murder him, you see, because her sisters – all 49 of them – had vowed to kill their husbands on the night they were all to be married, in response to being forced by their 50 cousins to wed them against their will. And 49 sisters had made good on their pledge. Only Lydia hadn't, because she'd fallen for the man she had to marry. By being in love, she had betrayed her sisters, and they're prosecuting her.

Given the chance to defend herself, Lydia says, "There are some things, when you want to know the truth of them, you have to use not just your mind or even your mind and your feelings but your neurons or your cells or whatever to make some decisions because they are too complicated. They need to be considered in some larger way, and in the largest way of all I know I have to go with my whole being when it says I love him and he loves me, and nothing else matters, even if other things do matter, even quite a lot."

When Shawn Sides speaks these words near the end of the Rude Mechanicals' production of Big Love, you may feel a rush of recognition. As singular as her character's situation may be, as topsy-turvy as it might look to us, she's describing a world we know: so complex, seeming to grow more so every day, as the abhorrent attacks in New York and Washington this week attest, and responding to it sensitively, sensibly, humanely, requires more of us than pure reason or emotion alone can provide. And if we want to go on, to live, in anything more than a fractured, damaged way, we must look at the world as a whole, at all the life on it, and draw our responses to it from our whole being – neurons, cells, and all.

Big Love prods us in that direction by engaging us on as many levels as it can. Playwright Charles Mee stuffs the play with intellectual debates – not only regarding the pros and cons of Lydia's actions, but about the rights of women, a person's responsibility to shelter refugees, the inherent aggression of men and society's encouragement of same, the beauty of submission, the necessity for justice before anything else, and more – laying out extreme political positions in rational and seductive monologues that provocatively engage our minds in the manner of a George Bernard Shaw comedy. But Mee doesn't stop at tickling our intellects; he pricks our hearts, our bellies, our memories, our instincts, our reflexes, and our aesthetic sensibilities with romantic encounters, pop songs, sentimental reminiscences, visual gags, kisses, fights, interludes of classical music, and spectacular explosions of physicality. The play swirls almost madly from brainy discourse to visceral activity to contemplative imagery and back again, like a manic dance or, well, life.

The Rudes, who are always up for a good dance, take Mee's play and tear up the floor with it. With guest director Darron West, they give the play's physical aspects an exhilarating energy. "Sisters" Sarah Richardson and Lana Lesley make their entrance clambering through a window, then join Sides in a seriously hip-shaking grrrl rock number. They vent their feelings about men in general in a spectacular spasm of jumping, shaking, and hurling themselves to the floor, a giddy episode that is echoed by their counterparts, Robert Newell, Michael T. Mergen, and Atticus Rowe, doing push-ups, squat thrusts, and other gym class sweat routines as they huff and puff about how tough it is being a guy. A musical interlude features Jon Watson lip-synching a romantic standard as Lesley, Sides, and Richardson provide campy back-up moves like the Goldiggers in some Sixties Dean Martin special.

In contrast to – and yet complementing – these often vigorous exertions is a visual elegance from designers Michael Raiford, Leslie Bonnell, and Brian Scott. Raiford encloses the playing space in a series of blue panels that, under Scott's lights, shift sumptuously from shade to shade – cobalt, cerulean, indigo, royal – and seem to surround the cast with miniature swimming pools. Looking at them, we can easily imagine ourselves on the Mediterranean coast, in a fancy villa, as we can when looking at the actors' extravagantly beaded bridal gowns and tailored tuxes, betassled silken robes and subtly striped slacks (which also offer ample evidence of Bonnell's eye for fashion and her wit).

The company manages to combine the roughness and richness in their delivery of Mee's text, and the results are bracing. As outlandish as their characters' situations are, as far over the top as their speeches take them, the actors ground everything in personalities that soften the caricatures and make them convincing. Lesley's fierce pursuit of equality and justice, even through murder, stems from an audible pain in her voice. Likewise, we can hear in Richardson's rhapsody to submission a soul hungry for kindness. In his soft delivery, Watson reveals how his genteel Guiliano, the gay nephew of the villa's owner, is touched by beauty, and his life, right down to his extensive Barbie collection, is a response to that. Mergen's fiery gaze is what shows us how his testosterone-fueled Constantine is shaped by force and acts accordingly. Bill Johnson employs his broad, rolling bass to enhance our sense of Piero, the villa's owner, as a man of wealth and taste. Taking it slow and easy, and speaking simply and directly, Karen Kuykendall radiates the wisdom and authority that allows Piero's mother to judge Lydia's fate. And Sides and Newell provide the endearing awkwardness and earnestness of new lovers, giving them the appeal through which we buy into Lydia's decision and are invested in the outcome of her trial.

When Sides speaks of Lydia's love for her new husband, a love that comes from her whole being because that's what some things require, you may feel a rush, not just from recognizing the world she describes but from recognizing the "big love" she feels, and our desperate need for it in this oh-so complicated world. It is one of many rushes that this show provides, stirring, vivifying stimulation to every part of you, right down to the cells.

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Rude Mechanicals, Rude Mechs, Charles Mee, Shawn Sides, Lana Lesley, Sarah Richardson, Michael Raiford, Leslie Bonnell, Robert Newell, Michael T. Mergen, Jon Watson, Karen Kuykendall

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