50 brides for 50 brothers

Big Love

Rated 3.0

Is it something in the air? In the last few weeks, we’ve been inundated with stories about arranged marriages, proposed or consummated, that end in tragedy: the Sacramento Ballet’s Giselle, Sacramento Opera’s Roméo et Juliette, and the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Arranged Marriage.

Playwright Charles Mee’s Big Love, presented by the University of California, Davis, Department of Theatre and Dance, takes everything about the popular subject to absurd extremes. Fifty sisters are being forced, against their will, to marry 50 brothers. The sisters flee from Greece to Italy, hoping to escape. The men track them down with grim matrimonial intent, leading to a debate over whether it’s better to be feminine and bow to the inevitable, or to pull the “black widow” strategy and slaughter one’s sexually sated husband on the wedding bed. There’s even a ray of romantic hope, when one of the 50 sisters discovers that her new husband isn’t a jerk and falls in love.

Big Love is a deliberately crazy, uneven, jagged-edged piece. Partially based on a play by Aeschylus, Mee also invokes stern, Italian family tradition. And he jabs at pop culture, Chippendale dancers, war-crime trials and self-help experts, among other targets. (You may recall Beyond the Proscenium’s wild production of Orestes 2.5, which was based on another Mee script drawn from an ancient Greek source.)

Big Love is a hugely physical show, as well, and director Sheldon Deckelbaum has a lot of fun with this. The characters leap screaming into the air and crash to the floor with angry thuds, engage in a cake fight, beat each other up and shuck off their formal wedding clothes to run around in their underwear. There’s also a big bathtub full of water onstage throughout, which serves as both the location for a sensual bathing scene and a dumping ground for dead bodies.

Is Big Love outrageous? Frequently. Is it funny? At times. But it’s also scary, sexy and philosophical. Is it well-performed? It depends. The actors range from undergraduate rookies to grad students who are virtually professionals. Does the show hold together throughout? Wrong question! I don’t think it was intended to. Could it have been, ahem, executed better? That’s a dangerous question. Let’s just say, “At times, yes.” Campus shows tend to be that way.