At Santa Rosa Junior College, phrases like “climbing the walls” and “dangling from the precipice” are typically employed in describing the school’s precarious funding situation. Indeed, with classes cut and fees raised, it’s somewhat miraculous that the college’s acclaimed theater arts program is mounting a full season of plays this year. As it turns out, “miraculous” is the perfect word to describe the death-defying new show that kicks off this year’s theater season—Charles Mee’s Big Love, a comedy-drama in which the actors literally climb walls and literally dangle from precipices.
“Big Love,” says director Leslie McCauley, “is definitely not like any show we’ve ever done here before. We’ll be using the entire theater space, from bottom to top. Actors will dangle above the audience’s heads, and rappel down all around them. The dancing will be like nothing we’ve done, too. It’s very intense, lots of throwing themselves to the floor and leaping back up. It’s very exciting to watch. It’s going to pretty amazing!”
That nicely describes the work of American playwright Charles Mee, who writes scripts the way some people cut pictures out of magazines, glue them to cardboard boxes, fill those boxes with old love letters and balloon animals, then float the box out to sea with a note saying, “Use this stuff anyway you like.” His work of the last few decades is best characterized as “theatrical collage,” or, as Mee’s Wikipedia entry puts it, “radical reconstructions of found texts.” He sets few limits on what additional material might be suitable to incorporate into his plays, borrowing everything from poetry, songs and newspaper columns to speeches, scriptures, recipes, self-help manuals and his own lyrical borderless musings.
Big Love (not to be confused with the HBO series about a polygamist businessman) is largely based on the 2,500-year-old play The Suppliant Women, by the Greek poet Aeschylus. Sometimes called The Suppliants or The Danaids, the work is thought to be among the earliest surviving plays in history. The story follows 50 Greek sisters who’ve escaped a mass wedding to their 50 male first cousins, to whom they’ve been promised in marriage since before their birth. Not desiring marriage (at least, not to these particular men), the women escape to a villa in Italy, where the jilted fianc–s soon find them, waging a battle of the sexes that calls into question much of how humans understand maleness and femaleness.
True to form, Mee uses Aeschylus’ translated text as little more than a basic canvas, onto which he has grafted snippets of writing by others, sampling German sociologist Klaus Theweleit’s seminal study Male Fantasies, new age philosopher-poet Gerald Jampolsky’s touchy-feely Love is Letting Go of Fear, a lecture on evolution by UC Davis professor Maureen Stanton and a whole lot more. The script calls for music by an equally non-homogenized mix of composers including Mozart, Mark-Antoine Charpentier, Lesley Gore (“You Don’t Own Me”), J.S. Bach (“Sleepers Awake”) and Rodgers and Hart (“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”). His stage directions are filled with odd choreographic actions, the text underscored by actors smashing themselves against the ground for emphasis, throwing dishes (and tomatoes), hurling each other into wedding cakes (head first), and at one point, actually dancing together in the air.
“There’s choreography, but this isn’t actually a musical, though people do sing,” laughs McCauley. “It requires an approach to physical movement that I knew called for a very special choreographer.” McCauley eventually contacted Melecio Estrella, a former student who dances with the innovative Joe Goode Performance Group, based in San Francisco. “Melecio immediately understood what this play required, and he’s been doing some amazing things with the actors—many of whom don’t have a lot of dance experience.” Laughing again, she adds, “Though a lot of this isn’t what you’d normally think of as dance.”
To say the least.
“In the modern dance world, it’s hard to say that there is a normal choreography process,” says Estrella. “But choreographing a play—this isn’t technically a musical—that is definitely not the usual type of project a choreographer works on.”
A competitive gymnast most of his life, Estrella—a native San Franciscan—discovered dance and theatrical “contact improvisation” in his teens. With the adventurous Project Bandaloop (made famous through the many online videos capturing their dances on the sides of buildings) Estrella has performed with a number of experimental dance troupes in the Bay Area and beyond. Working on Big Love, he enthusiastically admits, has been a satisfying challenge, made tougher by having to go on the road with his performance group here and there over the last several weeks of rehearsal at the SRJC.
“I worked throughout the summer to prepare my ideas,” he says, “and when rehearsals started, I had to work fast to get everyone familiar with the moves.” Then it was back on the road, with only one tune-up in the interim. “Now I’m back,” he says, “and I will be with the performers for the last week of the rehearsal process.”
Asked what the trickiest pieces of choreography have been (Spinning in the air? Rappelling from on high?), Estrella goes back to that throwing-yourself-to-the-ground thing.
“We had to do a lot of training on how to fall safely,” he allows.
Perhaps the hardest part for the actors is to do all of that physically demanding movement while also, you know, acting.
“The movements all come from the text,” Estrella says. “That’s the way Charles Mee writes. I hope the JC does more shows like this. It would be great for audiences around Sonoma County to see more contemporary theater. And Big Love is just so refreshing and engaging and . . .”
He stops, searching for one more way to describe what appears to be a virtually indescribable theatrical event.
“All I can say about Big Love, really,” he laughs, “is that it’s a delightfully unusual play. I hope audiences love it as much as I do.”
‘Big Love’ runs October 7-16 at SRJC’s Burbank Auditorium, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 8pm performances on Oct. 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15; 2pm matinees on Oct. 8, 9, 15 and 16. $10-$15. 707.527.4343.