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Vernal Variants

It's springtime and love takes front stage

Big Love

Spring is in the air, and a young dramatist’s fancy turns to thoughts of love–and adaptation. How else to explain the synchronicity of three different directors, working independently, giving us stunningly new versions of existing work by the masters? At La Val’s, the Shotgunners produce black-box glosses on Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, while the Rep collaborates with Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre to present an adaptation of Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women. Like consultations with the I Ching, all three, while made of recognizable elements, get a thorough shaking to see what new insights surface. Generally true to the source material, each of the new plays finds a way to bring its parent work into the present and make it relevant to a modern audience.

The directors who agreed to play in the Shotgun sandbox were faced with an unusual challenge: everyone involved had to be doing something for the first time–acting, running the lights, stage managing, etc., and the script had to be a new work. The cast of Slings and Arrows goes a step further–while part of their text is as Shakespeare wrote it, much more is (often flawlessly) improvised, making it the first time every time.

Director Rebecca Goodberg’s plan was to take the critical love relationships within familiar works and examine them more closely, stripped of all the pomp and politics that usually surround them. So to the strains of a mix of disco hits, we observe the wordless courtships of Portia and Brutus, the Macbeths, and the lonely peregrinations of Desdemona and Romeo–many of whom are played cross-gender, very convincingly considering their minimal drag. Wars and murders and so on progress, the lovers process their feelings, cross paths with the others, die in their various famous ways, and eventually coalesce into an afterlife support group. (“So you died for love like me, how, exactly?” Portia asks Romeo disbelievingly.)

Shakespeare might have been horrified by how fast and loose Goodberg and her cast play with his work, but he would have to appreciate moments like the one in which Romeo climbs through what he takes to be Juliet’s window–and mistakenly embraces Desdemona. (“Your windows are strikingly similar,” he deadpans.) There is something both moving and indefinably funny about Joseph Kaneko as Romeo. My companion thought it was his combination of youthful arrogance and longing–whatever the case, sometimes a single word or facial expression would wring helpless laughter from the audience. Benjamin Lovejoy, in his first-ever speaking role as Portia, and Eliza Bell as Lord Macbeth bring an unexpected yumminess to their characters, especially in the tenderer interactions with their respective spouses: Jonathan Krauss as the workaholic Brutus and the fiercely arch, witty Alan Coyne as Lady Macbeth. While it helps to know the plays Goodberg is mining for material, it’s not absolutely necessary, and the work slowly develops an internal logic of its own, which is generally satisfying.

Unlike Slings, the story on which Charles Mee’s Big Love is based is not very well-known, leaving the audience to either apprehend it or not based on what transpires on the bubblegum-pink wrestling-mat-covered stage. By far the most audacious of the three works, Big Love is violent, messy, and surprisingly funny, considering that it’s based on a Greek tragedy. It might help to know that in the original, Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Women, fifty sisters have been unwillingly pledged by their father Danaeus to marry their male cousins. Fleeing to Argos, they seek asylum by virtue of their kinship through Zeus. The Argive king reluctantly agrees–he fears the wrath of Aegyptus and his fifty sons–when the women threaten to kill themselves. The sanctuary is short-lived, for soon enough the frustrated grooms arrive and the king yields up the refugees. Left with no choice but to marry, the sisters agree to kill every last man on their wedding night. One woman, however, falls in love with her intended, and spares his life–which gets her in deep trouble with her sisters. As in the Oresteia
(still playing next door on the Roda stage), a trial is held, during which the merciful sister is held accountable for breaking her word. But unlike in the Oresteia, love trumps justice.

Playwright Charles Mee has taken this structure (the first play of the Suppliant Women trilogy survived intact; the second two exist only as fragments) and built one hell of a wedding cake on top of it. But ultimately Big Love is loyal to its source, from the stylized language with which the characters move in and out of choral odes to some of the arm gestures and the lengthy denouement. Most of the actors have been involved since the play premiered in Louisville at last year’s Humana Festival, and they show this by throwing themselves spiritedly (and often literally) into their roles. The desperate sisters, the brothers intent on claiming their brides, the unfortunate family whose peaceful Italian villa the women crash–every actor brings to life a character (or two) who is so interesting and vibrant that it seems a shame that we don’t get to meet every last one of these hundred cousins. In a show full of high points, especially exhilarating are the sequences where first the women, then the men, use their bodies acrobatically to illustrate the frustrations and limitations of gender identity–scenes we can be sure Aeschylus would never have staged, although he might have like the Greco-Roman wrestling part.

Quieter by far than Big Love and more wrenching than Slings, Blue Roses is a little Tennessee Williams, a little Yukio Mishima, and all longing. Though Blue Roses does capture a haunting, oppressive atmosphere, heavy with layered anger and disappointment, it’s technically the weakest of the three productions. Not because two-thirds of the cast are making their stage debuts in this show: although their inexperience shows, it is more than compensated by the emotional truthfulness of their performance. Rather, in reexamining the memory-play nature of The Glass Menagerie, director Christian Schneider has incorporated several tedious video interludes that fragment the work and break the spell cast by Wendee Yung as the bitter Amanda and Linda Kim and John Mok as her tremblingly rebellious children. He might have had more success integrating a sense of silence and isolation using his actors, rather than a television, and allowing what is an accurate translation of many of Williams’ themes–alienation, duty, fragility, and a soul-deadening nostalgia–to shine through his dedicated cast.