Director Howard Shalwitz is the real star of Woolly Mammoth's "Big Love," which opened over the weekend at the Kennedy Center's AFI Theater. Through an evening that lurches from farce to romance to drama, he is giddily inventive, staging with shameless panache a war to end all wars of the sexes. And his first-rate cast never fails him.
The mood of the evening is established on sight by James Kronzer's set, which suggests a Mediterranean villa as re-imagined by Rene Magritte: beige tile, blue sky with a couple of irregular holes in it, a footed bathtub to the left and, upper right, a brilliant daisy sun. The scene is invaded at the outset by Lydia (Kate Eastwood Norris), who staggers out in a purple-accented wedding dress under a red bridal veil, the first of Elena Zlotescu's very clever costumes. Lydia looks just a bit troubled and, as we soon learn, she is.
Charles L. Mee's play takes as its source material Aeschylus's "The Suppliant Maidens," which dates from 490 B.C. and is believed to be the oldest surviving Greek drama. (If Aeschylus can make his way to Woolly Mammoth, then perhaps all things are possible.) "Maidens" was the first part of a trilogy -- the other plays have been lost -- and, in fact, nothing much happens in it: The 50 daughters of Danaus flee from Egypt to Argos to escape forced marriage to their 50 cousins, who are in feverish pursuit. They ask King Pelasgus for asylum; he says he'll grant it only with the consent of his subjects, which is duly given. The cousins, threatening war, are sent on their way, leaving the grateful women safe for the moment. But the outline of the full trilogy is known -- the maidens are ultimately forced into the hateful unions and bloody retribution ensues -- so Mee has plenty to work with. Too much, in fact, by night's end.
In "Suppliant Maidens," all 50 daughters appear onstage, serving as both chorus and protagonist -- a less-than-dramatic structure Aeschylus abandoned in later works. In "Big Love," set in a particularly insane modern world, there are 50 Greek maidens as well, we're told, but we meet only three of them. They're truly three faces of Eve: the sensible, forthright Lydia; the man-hating Thyona (Naomi Jacobson) and the ditsy, submissive Olympia (Lisa Biggs). With Thyona vehemently keeping the other two united in resentment -- "The male is a biological accident!" -- they've washed up in Italy to seek deliverance from masculine tyranny.
They first encounter the ornately hospitable Guiliano (Bruce Nelson, fetching in rouged cheeks, blue eye shadow and high heels), who minces onstage to suggest that they plead their case to his Uncle Piero (Leo Erickson), the owner of the property. When persuasion fails, Thyona threatens a mass suicide ("Think of it -- 50 dead women hanging in front of your house!") and Piero seems to come around.
Soon thereafter, a helicopter is heard -- Hana Sellers's sound design is just right and often very witty -- and out come three suitors. Constantine (Mitchell Hebert) is the head man, a remorselessly hard customer who says he is going to take Jacobson's Thyona by any means necessary. (He's quite convincing . . . but still, you don't mess with an irate Jacobson.) Constantine is accompanied by the more sensitive Nikos (Eric Sutton), who is paired with Lydia, and the underdeveloped character of Oed (David Lamont Wilson), who seeks Olympia's hand. His actors thus assembled, Shalwitz begins deploying them like a deranged general.
You're familiar with battles of the sexes, but have you ever seen Jacobson pull off a tantrum-ballet? Thyona is mad, I tell you, mad -- her dignity, her reason and her freedom are all being swept away by men -- and when she starts throwing her body against walls, onto the floor, every place but into that silly bathtub, she's expressing a comic frustration that's quite beyond words. (The other two soon join her for a pas de trois, beautifully choreographed by Karen Bradley.) And because Mee and Shalwitz are playing no favorites, the three suitors later get their chance with a gymnastic depiction of sexual frustration.
The actors, many of them Woolly veterans, are terrific. Thyona is the most vivid of the three unwilling brides, and Jacobson, as noted, is a veritable goddess of wrath. But the other two are superb as well. Norris's Lydia is the center of the play: She wonders, she doubts, she offers hope that there will be peace after the war. And Biggs has some terrific comic moments as the weak sister who, in her heart, would choose pleasure over principle. The implacable Hebert has by far the best role of the three men, and his Constantine is a more than worthy opponent for Thyona -- a divine-right pillar of male supremacy.
Mee adds several winning characters to flesh out his story, among them Guiliano, Bella (June Hansen), a sort of deranged high priestess of the villa, and Eleanor (Hansen again), a houseguest carried away with love, Italian-style. Nelson and Hansen embody these nut cases with admirably unself-conscious conviction.
You hardly have time to ask yourself how all this lunacy will end, and then it does. Having cast his lot with Aeschylus, Mee ultimately returns to his source's murderous climax and its aftermath, and that's something of a problem. A change in tone from the farcical to the dramatic is a tall order in the theater, and the play's conclusion feels both arbitrary and ramshackle.
So, finally, "Big Love" tries to cover more ground than it can. For most of the evening Mee lifts "The Suppliant Maidens" into a loopy parallel universe, and he's a lot more fun than Aeschylus. And in the end, the pull of the ancient master is also the pull of gravity, in more ways than one. But if the final trajectory is downward, with Shalwitz behind the wheel it's been a hell of a ride.
Big Love, by Charles L. Mee. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Lighting design, Jay A. Herzog. Fight choreography, John Gurski. Props, Jennifer Peterson and Linda S. Evans. Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes. At the Kennedy Center's AFI Theater through July 21. Call 202-467-4600.