Apparently no one ever told playwright Chuck Mee about the classical unities, least of all the one about "unity of place." The canvas of the genre-splicing writer of such contemporary classics as The Berlin Circle
(also called Full Circle
), Big Love
sometimes seems to sprawl as wide as the whole world, and often between one scene and the next.
But for Queens Boulevard (the musical)
, his next offering at the Signature Theatre--which is devoting its entire season this year to the Brooklyn-based writer--Mee's peripatetic imagination may have met its match in the impossibly diverse, immigrant-rich borough of Queens.
"Forty-six percent of Queens residents are foreign-born," Mee says. "I realized that if you set a play in the middle of Queens, and cast it with people who look as if they live in Queens, you've got a picture of the world."
He's had plenty of chances to get clear on that picture: His eldest daughter married a man from India, and the couple currently lives in Queens. Mee--a longtime New Yorker who nevertheless admits that his vision of the borough used to be as a good place for the occasional Greek-food run--has since "fallen in love with Jackson Heights and Flushing."
His daughter's wedding itself provided further theatrical inspiration. It took place in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the home of Kathakali dance drama, which reminded him, he says, of the kind of movement-based storytelling theatre he loves best.
"I've taken a number of classical Greek tragedies and set them in America today," Mee says. "So I thought it would be fun to bring a classical Kathakali play to America. Where? Where do lots of Indians come when they come to America? To Queens."
The Kathakali play he's drawn from is The Flower of Good Fortune
, about a young groom on a bumpy quest for the ultimate gift for his bride.
"The core of the story is a young couple who have just gotten married, and somebody at the wedding gives the bride a flower she really likes," Mee recounts. "Instantly the groom is jealous, because whatever his wife wants, he wants to give it to her. So he goes out into the streets of Queens, which is this jungle of a city, and encounters urban monsters and demons. He's thrown from adventure to adventure."
Mee says that the play--which features song and dance from a variety of cultures, including Okinawan folk music, and choreography by modern master Peter Pucci--is ultimately a "story of social love. The moral of the story is that personal love, erotic love is on a continuum with love of society and love of the world. All these people in Queens living side by side are learning how to live with each other."
Mee's relationship with Queens is actually more complicated and intertwined than a simple family tie. It dates indirectly to a collaboration he did with Chinese director Chen Shizheng at American Repertory Theatre called Snow in June
, based on a 13th century Chinese tale. Mee was uncertain about the result: "We tried to bring a Chinese play to America, but I thought the piece didn't quite land, because we didn't quite put it in America." Mee kept tinkering with the idea, thinking, "If I'm going to put it somewhere over here, that would be Queens." He subsequently wrote a new version of the Chinese play named for its Queens settting, Utopia Parkway
That in turn led Mee to an interest in Queens-based artist Joseph Cornell, who lived on that same parkway most of his life. Mee's recent collaboration with SITI Company, Hotel Cassiopeia
, was about Cornell's life and work.
Mee's love for the urban swirl isn't just limited to Queens, though.
"I grew up in a small town outside Chicago, and the reason I still love New York is that it feels like living in the middle of the whole world," Mee says.
In the nearly 50 years he's lived here, how has he seen the Big Apple grow?
"I think it's better and worse. I used to work as a journalist and editor in midtown, at 45th St and Fifth. I remember in the early '60s, an Italian airline pilot came out of a hotel across the street and turned right instead of left on 45th St. Grand Central Station closed at 6 p.m. in those days, and you didn't go there at night. He and his family were killed. That was midtown Manhattan!"
Things have gotten better, but at a cost.
"Giuliani's police state helped reduce crime, there's no doubt," says Mee. "We live in this Gilded Age now; it's not just the rich and the poor, it's the super-incredibly rich and the rest of us. But there's still this terrific urban life."
A buzzing sense of that life, with all its confusion and serendipity, is onstage in any Chuck Mee play. But it's no coincidence Queens Boulevard
may be both his Mee's most "New York" and his most global play yet.
For tickets to
Queens Boulevard (the musical), go here. An open captioned performance will be offered on Dec. 15.