LOUISVILLE—“Time is rape,” says a character in Big Love, Charles Mee’s audacious reimagining of Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, seen at the annual theater orgy that is the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Mee’s epigrammatic murmur from what may be his finest work resonated through the visitors’ weekend at Actors Theatre of Louisville. For of six full-length plays, four delved into rape’s effects and aftershocks. Thankfully, Mee’s opus—coupled with engaging efforts by the playwright-director teams of Jane Martin and Jon Jory (Anton in Show Business) and Naomi Iizuka and Anne Bogart (War of the Worlds)—prevented you from feeling, to put it crudely, totally fucked over by this recurring theme.
Take Alexandra Cunningham’s poorly executed spin on the Alex Kelly case, No. 11 (Blue and White). It tried to contextualize the suburban milieu that condones a star athlete’s rape of classmates. Imbued with a movie-of-the-week aesthetic, the play simply shows repugnant characters acting repugnantly. Toni Press-Coffman’s Touch loses touch fast. Narrated by a young astronomer whose wife disappears one night, the play opens with a 30-minute monologue in which we learn that the wife was raped and murdered. Listening to the overwrought young widower—think a duller version of Carl Sagan—and watching him assuage his grief by visits to a prostitute with a heart of gold was excruciating.
Stephen Belber’s Tape, by comparison, seemed a leap forward in quality. Rising filmmaker Jon reunites with an old high school friend, only to find his eccentric dope-dealing buddy has planned a surprise: Vinnie manipulates his pal into confessing to a date rape in their senior year. Vinnie then reveals that he’s tape-recorded the confession and wants Jon to call Amy—she’s now an assistant D.A. in the area—and apologize. At its best, the play contains a heady mix of Mamet-inspired dialogue and Beckettian notions about memory and its preservation (see Krapp’s Last Tape). Unfortunately, Tape un-spoooooools when Vinnie’s motive is revealed to be his resentment that he never fucked Amy himself. The play thus shrivels to an end.
Big Love proves size is everything. Like his Orestes and Trojan Women: A Love Story, Mee’s script careens between classical Greek tragedy and contemporary consumer cul-ture. And oh what a joy ride. The play’s power resides in Mee’s unusually strong nar-rative focus. He extends the plot of The Suppliants—the only extant play from Aeschylus’s original trilogy, which ends with the 50 daughters of Danaus being granted asylum after fleeing their 50 forced marriages—and imagines his own compressed, 90-minute trilogy. He cements the underlying structure by focusing on three sisters and three suitors. This foundation allows Big Love grand theatrical gestures derived from its giddy collisions between pop cultural references and mythic-sized themes about male-female relationships, U.S. cultural imperialism, and the power of human love. Under Les Waters’s beautifully moderated direction, a bravura cast creates a dynamic war between the sexes. Most spectacular are two sequences in which first the women, then the men, propel themselves around the stage with abandon, as if driven by unseen forces. During the men’s sequence, a cast member rhythmically wings circular saw blades into the rear foam-core wall. It’s a succinct, primal physicalization of the ageless subtext, and earns Mee his lyrical, sentimental ending, “Love trumps all.”
The other two most compelling pieces belonged to the Mom and Pop of the ATL operation: regular guest director Anne Bogart and artistic director Jon Jory. Bogart’s War of the Worlds, scheduled to open BAM’s Next Wave festival in the fall, is about Orson Welles, another in a series of SITI examinations of fascinating cultural figures (Robert Wilson, Marshall McLuhan, Andy Warhol). The meteoric rise and fall of Welles’s career jibes neatly with Bogart’s relentless pursuit of how identity and media culture create each other. Here, more than ever, it’s a self-conscious conceit: Stephen Webber does a fine job acting an avuncular Welles; Barney O’Hanlon does a fine job as a “character” named Stephen Webber. It plays like a celebrity ghost story, raising the questions everyone wonders about Welles—was he really a genius, and if he was, what the hell happened to him after The Magnificent Ambersons?—without offering answers.
Jane Martin’s questionable identity—most suspect the playwright is Jon Jory—never seemed more transparent. Anton in Show Business is an adroit satire on the state of American regional theater. It follows the travails of three actresses as they audition for and rehearse Three Sisters. The play abounds with Waiting for Guffman-like theater types, but the most effective is a theater critic planted in the audience who interrupts the action with pointed questions to the cast just as similar queries about motivation, relevance, and quality have circulated through your brain. As in all Martin plays, there’s a tendency toward the maudlin and cloyingly sentimental. But the play serves perfectly as a valedictory offering from the departing Jory, who after producing 24 Humana Festivals leaves for a teaching post in Seattle.
Jory’s legacy won’t lie with the recent detritus of 10-minute plays, “phone plays,” and last year’s T-shirt plays. (Although David Ives’s short play Arabian Nights proves that theater in double-espresso doses can be completely satisfying.) Instead, Jory can be thanked for staying infatuated with theater’s potential for so long, while embracing new work like that of Bogart and Mee. Jory’s is a big love, and as Mee’s play points out, love trumps all.