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Mee’s Big Love for Playmaking

This weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing Emerson Stage’s production of Charles Mee‘s Big Love, a re-telling of Aeschylus‘ The Danaids.

This happened!

First and foremost, Boston is both a college town and a theatre town, and it was a thrill to engage with the rich, realized work of our downtown peers. The Green Line may be the most unreliable train service offered by the MBTA, but we’re neighbors and future collaborators. I understand competition between college theatre programs for admissions and financial support and other exhausting practicalities, but that’s all out of our hands. Our work, however, is a different story. At the end of the day, we’re constantly tagged, “the next generation of theatre artists,” by our programs’ promotional materials. BU SOT, Emerson, Boston College, BoCo, Suffolk, so on and so forth—the potential for community is enormous. I have no interest in creating work in a vacuum, and that certainly won’t be possible when I’m flung from the safe parameters of 855 Commonwealth Avenue upon earning my BFA in 2015. We should strive, at the very least, to know what one another is up to—perhaps even crash one another’s campuses to take in a show or two! Radical thinking, I know.

Look at Mee!

That being said, Big Love was my first exposure to the work of Charles Mee. I’ve heard of Mee—sometimes called “Chuck,” which totally codifies the professional nickname as a cute idea—and I’ve heard of his work’s mission. Mee’s theatre has a certain hyper-contemporary quality; he is a collagist who collects text, images, stray pieces of culture past and present and arranges them into stories meant to approximate the spirit of now.

This raises many fascinating questions on ownership that Mee looks to tackle with his “(re)making project,” summarized thusly:

There is no such thing as an original play… Whether we mean to or not, the work we do is both received and created, both an adaptation and an original, at the same time. We re-make things as we go. My plays were mostly composed in the way that Max Ernst made his Fatagaga pieces toward the end of World War I: texts have often been taken from, or inspired by, other texts. Among the sources for these pieces are the classical plays of Euripides as well as texts from the contemporary world. I think of these appropriated texts as historical documents—as evidence of who and how we are and what we do. And I think of the characters who speak these texts as characters like the rest of us: people through whom the culture speaks, often without the speakers knowing it. And I hope those who read the plays will feel free to treat the texts I’ve made in the same way I’ve treated the texts of others.

All of his work is available for free on his website. One can do with it as they please, which is an overwhelming and astonishing offer from a contemporary dramatist. In a theatre production system necessarily obsessed with rights and royalties, Mee’s open-sourcing of his work marks him as quite the iconoclast.

Mee’s Big Love is the story of fifty female cousins trying desperately to escape arranged marriage to their fifty male cousins. Told in Mee’s signature style, it contains theatrical multitudes. It is an awesome exploration of romance refracted through lenses of politics and gender.

His Big Love groomsmen are drawn in shades of despicable—they’re American exceptionalists, oppressive imperialists, and abusive misogynists. They attempt ownership over their brides by force. They push and push in pursuit, not once allowing themselves a moment of vulnerability to hear the needs of their women, to understand their refusal of marriage. Finally, the women must push back and retaliate with greater force—they murder all their grooms at the alter.

Considering his “(re)making project,” Mee is engaged in an interesting dialogue with his play. Unlike the grooms of Big Love, he vehemently resists forcing artistic ownership over his work. This makes Big Love a sort of manifesto.

One of the fifty male cousins, Nikos, is more open to love throughout the play, hesitant to agree with his aggressive cousins. Nikos is thus spared by his betrothed, Lydia, at the play’s conclusion, and they marry after all the corpses are cleared away. Mee almost leaves us with a happily ever after, but an uncertainty hangs in the air. In the Emerson Stage production, the lights fell at the play’s end on the breathtaking image of the two lovers staring at each other in silent uncertainty for the future they’d now have to build together.

Marriage is an act of creation. Nikos and Lydia must create their life together after the events we see in Big Love.

Mee and his work offer their hand in artistic marriage. The “(re)making project” holds the potential to inspire this same exhilarating uncertainty. The insecurity and possibility is overwhelming. There are a lot of free plays on the website, but there are no road maps for a successful production. He just offers. He hopes for his words to serve as collaborators in a partnership that holds the potential for a unique creation unto itself.

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