True Love

It takes a lot of guts to put on a Charles Mee play, and even more to stage it in Burnsville, a city not known for its experimental theater scene. Well, with its production of Mee’s True Love, the Chameleon Theatre Circle shows it has the courage and the chops to tackle the unusual, the risqué, and the outright bizarre. No matter what you might think of the play, you cannot accuse the Chameleon of holding anything back.

It helps, with Charles Mee, to have an appreciation of his source material and what he does with it. In the case of True Love, he starts with Euripides’ Hippolytus, the tragedy of a young man and his lustful stepmother, Phaedra. (Although Euripides and later re-tellings by Seneca and Racine all cast Phaedra as the seductress, Mee’s take on the story is somewhat more ambiguous.) Yet True Love takes only the rough outline of the Hippolytus story, places it in a Burnsville trailer park, and uses it as a point of departure for a collage of musings and testimonies about the nature of love, sexuality, and relationships  (as in other Mee plays, much of the script is borrowed from other literary and musical texts).

Charles Mee does not write kid-friendly plays. Part of his project, as director Barbe Marshall notes, is to remind us that “bad” or transgressive behavior – particularly sexual behavior – has been going on for millenia and was openly discussed by the Greeks; the idea that modern society is in a moral decline is thus shown to be historically untrue. To prove his point, Mee’s characters represent a range of ideas and sexual preferences. There are moments in True Love that could be played for pure shock value, but what keeps this particular production from being gratuitous is the work of its cast, who put human faces on practices which we might judge harshly in the abstract. Of special note is the work of three newcomers (or recent returners) to the Twin Cities stage, Erica S. YoungC.K. Troth, and Duane O. Koivisto, all of whom inject an impressive dose of personality and compassion to their roles. As frustrated and lonely stepmother Polly, Karen Bix also brings an eloquence and wide emotional range to a part that could have easily been painfully shrill.

The trouble with Mee’s collage of perspectives is that he tends to treat all subjects similarly, no matter their severity. While the message of tolerance towards a variety of consensual sexual practices and gender identities is not going to push too many buttons, audience members may take issue with his treatment of abuse and self-mutilation, which come across as unfortunate but passively accepted. The philosophical among us will see this as an exploration of the distinction between humans and animals, and the self-reflective might view this as an exercise in defining one’s own personal moral boundaries; no matter what, viewers should be prepared to be challenged in ways that may or may not be welcome.

That said, if you are prepared to have your boundaries pushed, the Chameleon puts a lot of grit and heart into their production. The question of desire – and all of its messy aftermath – is a common theatrical theme; True Love takes on its roughest and most complicated aspects in a way that we are highly unaccustomed to. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the Chameleon deserves a lot of credit for its energetic and nonjudgmental foray into some pretty difficult territory.

Check out the trailer: 

True Love by Charles Mee. Presented by the Chameleon Theatre Circle. April 13-29, 2012 at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center, 12600 Nicollet Avenue, Burnsville. Tickets: $17-20. Purchase in person at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center box office, via Ticketmaster by phone (800-982-2787) or online

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