The dozen cast members in Big Love, currently playing at the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, work very hard to give Charles L. Mee’s script the level of whimsy, athleticism, and full-throttle histrionics it seems to demand. The result, much like Mee’s script, is uneven. When it works, the playwright’s 90-minute comic adaptation of The Suppliants, a.k.a. The Danaids by Aeschylus, has a fizzy charm. When it doesn’t, the intimate John Swayze Theatre at the New School of Northern Virginia, where the company performs, starts to feel like a pressure cooker—as if the actors are bearing down on the audience to insist we find them cute, cute, cute.
In Aeschylus’s drama, 50 young daughters of Danaus flee with their father to avoid forced marriages to their 50 Egyptian cousins. They sail to the island of Argos and seek sanctuary from the king there, who protects them when the Egyptian suitors arrive and try to drag the young women away. (In the Greek myth, nearly all of the sisters marry and then murder their spouses, at their father’s urging.)
In Mee’s riff on Aeschylus and the underlying myth, the playwright ponders the power of romantic love versus “arranged” love and how the two can serendipitously intersect. He also explores the sheer testosterone-fueled energy that can lead some men to bully or control or just bounce off the walls—anything to build up a sweat and release pent-up energy in a masculinity-affirming yet not overtly sexual way (sports comes to mind).
The most compelling aspect of the production, staged with much theatrical hyperbole by Kirsten Kelly, is the gratifying chemistry between Lydia (Sarah Douglas), the most grounded of the three sisters in the play (their other siblings remain onboard the ship in which they fled), and her particular intended, Nikos (David Zimmerman). Lydia’s hostility winningly melts away as she connects with Nikos, and it’s rather thrilling to watch them fall in love. Less easily entertaining are the naive and irritatingly perky Olympia (Kristen Garaffo) and her older, perpetually pissed off “radical feminist” sister Thyona (Jessica Aimone) as they interact with their intendeds, the inarticulate Oed (Josh Sticklin) and the über-cool Constantine (Michael Kevin Darnall). Director Kelly has encouraged everyone to play their roles so much to the hilt that it’s rather daunting to watch them after a while because the skill level among the actors varies.
David Bryan Jackson is a smooth presence as the sisters’ island host, Piero, and as fun-loving British tourist Leo. Jackson plays it so low-key that in contrast to the others, he seems almost sleepy. S. Lewis Feemster has fun as Piero’s very efficient, very fey majordomo.* Claire Carroll does double duty as an ancient Italian mother of many sons (she gets to smash tomatoes when she tells how one or the other of them has disappointed her), and as a romantically knowing guest at Piero’s villa.
The varying skill levels among the cast members affects more than just the acting. The characters must often burst into song. These tuneful expressions of emotion start even before the play, with pre-show music that shifts between Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and an instrumental version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In the play, characters break into renditions of “(Feels Like) Heaven” and “Whole Lotta Love,” among other rock tunes, but their musical chops vary. A lot.
The witty costumes (by Deborah Sivigny) and the warm Italian scenic design (by Natsu Onoda Power) deserve praise. Sivigny’s duds impress right from the start, when Lydia makes her entrance by crawling down to the stage through the audience in a tattered beauty of a wedding dress open at the back, so quickly did she and her sisters flee their fate. Powers covers the tiny stage at first with a luscious satiny red curtain, which gradually reveals scattered pieces of white balustrade to indicate the ocean-facing patio of Piero’s villa. At the back of the stage is a sunny Mediterranean panorama that makes you want to pack your bags and head straight there.
Mee’s Big Love gets a highly enthusiastic staging from the Hub. Like romantic love itself, there are things about it that are just great, and other things that are, well, heavy going.
Big Love is at the Hub Theatre through August. 5. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets ($25 for adults) are available via the Hub Theatre’s website.
*This post has been updated from a previous version.