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Big Love at Strawdog Theatre Company | Theater review

Matt Hawkins puts his poppy stamp on Charles Mee's postmodern deconstruction of modern love.

 (Photograph: Chris Ocken)
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Photograph: Chris Ocken

John Ferrick and Stacy Stoltz in Big Love at Strawdog Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Chris Ocken)
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Photograph: Chris Ocken

Michaela Petro, Stacy Stoltz and Sarah Goeden in Big Love at Strawdog Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Chris Ocken)
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Photograph: Chris Ocken

Big Love at Strawdog Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Chris Ocken)
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Photograph: Chris Ocken

John Henry Roberts and Michaela Petro in Big Love at Strawdog Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Chris Ocken)
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Photograph: Chris Ocken

Paul Fagen and company in Big Love at Strawdog Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Chris Ocken)
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Photograph: Chris Ocken

Big Love at Strawdog Theatre Company

"What is love? Baby, don't hurt me." That dual sentiment, proferred by ’90s Eurodance artist Haddaway, isn't far from that posed by playwright Charles Mee in this extra-loose update of Aeschylus' The Suppliant Women, thought to be the oldest surviving example of Western drama.

In Mee's version, 50 Greek sisters have fled to Italy to escape arranged marriages to their 50 cousins (now assimilated Americans). Some of the women are against the very idea of marriage and patriarchy, as represented by the fiercely independent Thyona (Michaela Petro); some, like the dainty Olympia (Sarah Goeden), are more receptive to the idea of submitting to a husband; others, such as the conflicted Lydia (Stacy Stoltz), just want more say in the matter, fearful of potential emotional carnage. Their matches are their equals and/or opposites: Thyona is betrothed to male privilege–asserting alpha dog Constantine (Shane Kenyon), Olympia to doting doofus Oed (Kyle A. Gibson) and Lydia to romantic softy Nikos (John Ferrick). The owner of the villa where the wedding-warring factions converge, a practical man named Piero (John Henry Roberts), tries to broker a deal.

Mee uses pop music cues in his script, introducing the sisters with a rousing rendition of "You Don't Own Me." The playwright famously encourages that his collage-like works be freely remixed, and so shrewd director Matt Hawkins adds a few more numbers, including a plaintive, piano-led contrapuntal medley of Elvis's "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You" and Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe."

Hawkins also augments Mee's three representative couples with a phalanx of additional brides and grooms—not quite the full 50 on each side, but he stages the piece with a tightly choreographed total cast of 32, about half as many actors onstage as seats in Strawdog's smallish house. The effect is impressive, though Mee's gender dynamics can come across as overly old-fashioned even in their multiplicity. (The sole nod to non-hetero conventions is Piero's maybe-gay nephew Giuliano, played by Paul Fagen with dignity even as he performs the Backstreet Boys' "As Long As You Love Me" in drag.)

Mee's heady maelstrom of ideas can make Big Love feel like a spin in that ultimate of wedding presents, the KitchenAid stand mixer. But fiercely committed performances all around, particularly from Petro, Goeden, Stoltz and Kenyon, make it worth an "I do."

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