'Fistful of Love' clutches odd gifts

Staff WriterMay 21, 2008 

  • What: "Fistful of Love"

    When: 8:15 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 29-31; 3:15 p.m. Sunday.

    Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham.

    Cost: $17; $12 Thursdays; $8 student rush.

    Contact: 682-3343, www.manbitesdogtheater.org.

— In a wedding season marked by swooning sighs of "I do," "Fistful of Love" fights back with a belligerent "I won't" at Manbites Dog Theater.

A contemporary multimedia adaptation of Aeschylus' ancient Greek drama "The Suppliants," Fistful takes altar aversion to bloody extremes. But it also offers enough confections of its own to turn the tragedy into a romantic comedy.

A co-production by Manbites Dog and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, "Fistful of Love" is a freewheeling adaptation of several plays by Charles Mee, which are themselves adaptations of ancient and contemporary texts. Mee encourages directors to toy with his scripts, and Pig artistic director Jay O'Berski went hog wild, flipping the characters' genders, melding aspects from several stories and adding new ingredients.

In Mee's lively tale, 50 Greek brides flee the altar of an arranged marriage to their Greek-American cousins. Mee presents three of them, who wash ashore on the island resort of a wealthy Italian, followed by the grooms. After much arguing, the women agree to marry but secretly conspire to kill their husbands on their wedding night.

In O'Berski's version, the grooms flee the wedding, taking their musical accompaniment along -- a groovy wedding band that serves up a stylistically varied repertoire at opportune moments, replete with white suits, ruffled shirts and synchronized choreography.

The show plays more like a photo album with missing pages than a steadily plotted narrative. Reminiscent of O'Berski's "Ein Kleiner Kowboy," a whimsical collage he co-wrote in his Shakespeare & Originals days, "Fistful" is best seen as a series of strange dreams that make clearer sense at daybreak.

More character development would have made for a stronger "Fistful," and some judicious editing would have allowed for that. A marijuana-laced hot tub scene lends little to the proceedings. And a Jekyll-Hyde-style rendering of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love" by the aggressive bride and groom Tina (Monica Byrne) and Thylon (Rajeev Rajendran) rides the same joke through song's end.

Jane Holding, as island homeowner Piera, seemed to be struggling for her lines Friday, halting the show's pace in spots. But she was more confident later, especially as Piera offered graphic sexual advice to the brides with earnest pragmatism.

Tom Marriott and Elizabeth Phillips serve as a Greek chorus of sorts, Phillips' young Giuliana is a cynical observer protegee to Marriott's weathered poet Hank, whose Charles Bukowski musings provide a thoughtful counterbalance to the raucous musical interludes. Bilingual "Italian Radio Bytes" add further commentary on sex and conflict.

The brides and grooms are a motley and delightful crew, as is the musical trio Smooth Overload and the charismatic Donnis Collins and Ron Quander, who emerge from a gelato stand as the gods Athena and Apollo.

Emily Hower's sets and Dana Marks' costumes define the environment cleverly. And assistant director Jim Haverkamp keeps the floor clean by putting the story's bloody climax on film.

In the words of Daniel Johnston, ruefully rendered here by Hank, "True love will find you in the end." "Fistful" is an amusing lesson in why it's sometimes best to hide.

orla.swift@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4764

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