Charles L. Mee’s True Love is a rock musical based in part on Plato’s Symposium. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is also a rock musical based on Plato’s Symposium. The two pieces ultimately don’t have that much in common, since Mee’s piece spins off into Racine’s Phaedra, but you’d think any dramatist aware of Hedwig‘s genesis might avoid combining Plato and pop for a while.
Not so Charles Mee. A historian as well as a playwright, Mee habitually confronts the anxiety of influence. Most of his 15 or so plays have adapted Greek classics, renovating them in the garish colors of modern life. Since Mee regularly challenges Aeschylus and Sophocles, why should John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask intimidate him? What’s more, Mee has stated publicly that he doesn’t believe in intellectual property. But he does have the courage of his convictions; like a Napster of contemporary theater, he’s made all of his plays available over the Internet, free of charge. If you eschew originality and authorial control, plucking someone else’s fresh inspiration from the zeitgeist is a cakewalk.
Fearlessly unoriginal playwrights like Mee have an amphitheater full of reasons to update the classics, in addition to the fact that they’re public domain. The most obvious and tiresome justification, one Mee has cited as his own, comes from the desire to communicate to the modern world that its problems are nothing new. Medeas, Oedipi, and Clytemnestrae make headlines daily, goes the truism. Accordingly, Mee’s True Love suggests that bestial instincts are the basis of human nature, and all else being equal, we’d behead and fuck everyone in sight. Laurie Williams, as Polly, the play’s Phaedra analogue, wonders if the only difference between man and animal is that humans censor their impulses. “That’s what civilization is,” she cries. Polly has this insight while sharing a preternaturally lucid moment with her husband after he walks in on her shtupping his son. And there’s the rub: In return for the free bloodbath plots, the modern world (read America) thinks it must civilize the Greeks.
Just as modern audiences want to know what the murderous mother in the headlines must have been going through while killing all five of her children, they expect to hear Medea justify her actions, too. After all, the motivations suggested in ancient texts are unsatisfying and glib when contrasted with our culture of Too Much Information. The Greeks’ belief in a spiteful, capricious clique of deities clashes with our Judeo-Christian view of God as a fatherly higher power who loves us though he frequently puts obstacles in our way. We truly want to believe that everything happens for a purpose. Furthermore, that purpose must be explained in words. Many, many words.
Mee, who was first inspired to borrow from the classics while recuperating from polio at age 14, is a garrulous playwright whose introspective monologues ring of encounter groups and whose dialogue smacks of the couch. If you were writing a Charles Mee play about Charles Mee, you might draw the psychological conclusion that his battle with polio lies at the root of his fear of the physical aspects of theater, and maybe even fueled his decision to lift action from the Greeks rather than invent his own.
The non-Greek bits of True Love have the eroticism of a staged Penthouse letter. Indeed, True Love is a show about Fake Sex. “The thing that makes you crazy with desire is what lets you touch the deepest part of you,” declares one member of the motley crew hanging out in an auto body shop and sensitively revealing their kinkiest fantasies—as if those were the deepest parts of us! One grease monkey gets a charge from electrocuting his nuts with jumper cables, another fancies a pie in the face, a third craves domination. Tenderness plays no role in these characters’ definition of love; romance does not exist. Religion and class don’t seem to have any effect on their sexual attitudes, either. True Love often makes you feel like you’re at a horrible wrap party for a softcore porn film in 1978. Mee’s sad fictional creatures lack any context—their creative father has sexually abused them. They burst with need, yet have nothing to offer. When Polly’s stepson Edward complains that the media want you to think only about sex so that you won’t notice that the world’s falling apart, you might say the same about the play.
The set, however, is ingenious. Meticulously rendered by designer Christine Jones, the service station’s red car, old-time gas pump, industrial shelves, and plush car seats spill out into the new Zipper Theater, delivering far more surprises and delightful bits of detail than the script. When was the last time you saw an antique cigarette-vending machine? Director Daniel Fish compensates for the play’s inertia with anarchic spiritedness that doesn’t always work, encouraging his actors to scream until they turn red, upturn desks, toss mattresses around, get naked, and caress a live chicken, played by “Isabel” with a refreshing avian spark. This biddy will be a star once she gets a vehicle in which she can really soar.
While True Love‘s writing needs jumper cables on its cojones, Big Love‘s director should get the electric chair. Les Waters, head of the directing program at UCSD, which consistently graduates excellent actors, has used Mee’s take on Aeschylus’s The Suppliant Women as an occasion to subject New York to the cheapest middlebrow spectacle this side of Mamma Mia! Ruining fine performers with lame shtick and cheeseball antics, he forces Mee’s acrid battle of the sexes into a frilly corsage box. Fifty Greek brides go AWOL in Italy, refusing to marry their cousins, but for Waters this means only one thing—an opportunity to show off wedding gowns! Waters even attempts to scoop an unambiguous, happy ending out of a play whose major plot turn involves the murder of 49 husbands. There isn’t a fresh moment within 100 yards of the theater, just the putrid stench of broad acting, bad timing, and dumb Italian accents—you’d rather watch a marathon of Friends episodes. Scholars consider The Suppliant Women to be the oldest surviving play in Western literature. If its first production was anything like Big Love, it’s a miracle that drama made it this far.