Theatre Vertigo at the Electric Company, 2512 SE Gladstone, 306-0870, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm, $15, through November 8
Big Love is the absurdist playwright Charles Mee's most popular play, and it's easy to see why. A modern update of Aeschylus' The Suppliant Maidens, it tells the mythical story of 50 sisters who plot to murder the 50 cousins they are betrothed to. Mee joyously twists the source material into a discordant blend of pop culture, sex, violence, and music.
Theatre Vertigo rightly takes a minimalist approach to Mee's dreamy depictions of blood, nudity, and helicopters, letting the Electric Company's stark white walls and pillars serve as a palette for the imagination. The setting is a seaside hotel in Italy, a resort where the sisters (encapsulated by three representative female characters), take refuge from the pursuing cousins. The sisters are well played, with Julie Starbird making the most indelible impression as the fiery, militant Thyona, who describes a man as a "half-dead lump of flesh," amongst other things. She is the kind of crazed, likeable leader that can turn women towards murder, and Starbird has the wild-eyed charm to make her convincing.
The three corresponding cousins, Nikos, Oed, and the leader Constantine, don't fare quite as well. Keith Cable refuses to take Constantine (Thyona's counterpart and a dangerously articulate misogynist) at all seriously. A beautiful diatribe about the relationship between men and violence is wasted when in the middle of it, Cable heads offstage to take a piss. The inclination to treat these larger-than-life dudes with ridicule is understandable (they enter from a helicopter, wearing flight suits with tuxedos underneath), but neglectful. The sisters' ultimate homicidal retort has no gravity if its catalyst is a group of cartoonish louts.
Then again, Big Love doesn't need complex characterization to be thrilling. Vertigo's version is light and fast, and conveys the lucid mayhem that sets Mee's work apart. The climactic murder scene, replete with a bathtub drowning and a suffocation-via-mop, is both horrific and hilarious. Some have argued that Big Love is a triumph of style over substance, and that's just fine. In Mee's world it's not the outcome we care about, but the hilarious, vicious, mesmerizing battle waged. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS