121807chuckmee.jpgCharles Mee is renowned for his distinctive approach to playwriting, which synthesizes disparate pre-existing texts into startlingly new theatrical creations bursting with music, dance, video and other inspired surprises. The superb Signature Theatre is now in the midst of their season devoted to his plays; the first production, Iphigenia 2.0, was a devastating depiction of America’s Iraq catastrophe as seen through the prism of classic Greek tragedy. The current show, Queens Boulevard, is a funny, boisterous musical that swerves from hyper Indian ragas to contemporary dancehall tracks by M.I.A., telling the tale of a hapless bridegroom and a chain of absurd events that keep him bouncing around Queens on his wedding night. (It’s been extended through January 6th; tickets.)

What are some of the sources you drew from for Queens Boulevard? Queens Boulevard is primarily based on a Kathakali play called The Flower of Good Fortune by a guy named Kottayam Tampuran. But once you decide to set it in Queens then you’ve set it in a borough that’s like no place else on earth. It’s 46% foreign born and I think I read somewhere there are a hundred different nationalities. So it really is like no other place on earth, it really is like a global society on a pinpoint place on the map. Sure, there are a lot of recent immigrants but there is also the old Irish neighborhood in Sunnyside and the old Greek neighborhood in Astoria and other neighborhoods like that.

I also used Homer’s Odyssey as a sort of through line and also dropped in some chunks of James Joyce. So both in terms of form and content you have sort of a triple mash-up going. And rather than take material from a hundred different nationalities and impose a single point of view and sense of structure and so forth on it, Queens Boulevard really tries to have several points of view and ways of thinking in its structure and content. And then of course I drop in a lot of appropriated material from all over Queens. And the thing I love the best about it is stuff I stole from blogs. You probably know there are New York City blogs organized by subway stop. So you can click on a subway stop and immediately get 25 voices from a particular neighborhood; a bunch of stuff is just directly appropriated from those.

Are these bloggers aware that you have used that stuff in the play? No. In the program notes I always acknowledge sources and I’m pretty sure some of those people are acknowledged by name in the program but I didn’t ask their opinion; I just ripped it off, assuming they wouldn’t mind.

Do you think your work may be appealing more to younger audiences who, through the internet, are more accustomed to synthesized information? Yeah, totally. Also, I’ve noticed both on Iphigenia 2.0 and Queens Boulevard, just looking at the reviews, the sort of previous generation of critics, as it were, people who write for print publications like The New York Times and The Daily News and The Post and stuff like that absolutely hate these plays. And most of the critics on the internet have liked or loved them. And I think that’s purely because the next generation of critics are on the internet, and they obviously tend to be younger and less conventional.

Yeah, I was really surprised by something I read in a Times review about how Iphigenia 2.0 didn’t have anything “more substantial to say than ‘the Greeks had wars too.’” [Laughs] Right. Almost 20 years ago I wrote a version of Orestes set in the world today, directed by Tina Landau who directed Iphigenia. We did that on the banks of the Hudson River at what would be 63rd Street. There’s an old pier that burned down about 50 years ago and there’s kind of a rusted, melting skeleton of a structure still there in the river, that from a certain point of view sort of looks like the façade of a Greek temple. And we did Orestes there on the bank of the Hudson.

Then we did The Trojan Women on the banks of the East River, and I wrote an Agamemnon. And now Iphigenia 2.0 completes that cycle, although it was always meant to be the first play in the cycle. And the cycle of these four plays about The Trojan War is the story of the beginning, middle, end and aftermath of a disastrous, tragic war. And the moral of the story is that no empire lasts forever and all of them are brought down finally not by the actions of others but by their own acts. Orestes was occasioned by the first Persian Gulf War and Iphigenia obviously has some very direct resonance with the current war in Iraq. The cycle of the four plays together is called Imperial Dreams.

Do you know if anyone in the military saw Iphigenia 2.0? I don’t know but after one performance a woman came up to me in the lobby and said, “You know, I come from a military family. I grew up on an army base in Germany.” And she started to cry and said, “I just wanted to thank you on behalf of the American military.” I was stunned.

You’ve written a lot about war and politics – do you still get involved in any political activism? Well, not the way I used to. I graduated from college in 1960 and wrote plays for places like LaMaMa and St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. And then I got very caught up in anti-war politics of Vietnam and activism and that led to writing about the war. And one thing led to another and pretty soon I was writing stuff about American foreign policy, which led to writing books about American international relations. And I had nothing to do with theater for twenty, twenty-five years. I was just completely taken up with writing about American politics.

I never thought I was a historian, I mean I never thought I was a person engaged in the disinterested pursuit of the truth, as it were. I always thought I was a citizen and a polemicist. After twenty-five years I went back to theater, in the mid-eighties. I don’t think of myself as a person who writes directly political plays as if I’m trying to advocate a policy. But I do think human beings are not just creatures of personal psychology, we’re creatures of history, culture and politics. So that was always in my plays, I think.

And then, just specifically about the Iraq War, I’ve had some really very minor involvement in some things that have gone on in the past few years but not the kind of – I mean back in the sixties I was working in publishing and a lot of people in publishing were into graphic design and printing brochures and so I organized a bunch of people in the publishing industry and we made campaign materials for anti-war congressmen and stuff like that. And then I organized the national committee to impeach Nixon. So I was really consumed by it in the sixties and seventies and what I do now is really trivial compared to the stuff I used to do then.

Is it because you have different feelings about the effectiveness of activism? No, I think that activism is still really important and crucial; it’s just that all my life all I’ve really wanted to do is write plays and now I’ve finally come back to it. And not that there’s anything deficient with activism but I remember a few years ago I saw a piece of theater in Italy by a guy named Pipo del Bono and somebody was saying to him, “Is this piece really about the government?” And he said, “Well, of course it is but I’m hoping to go further and deeper than that and really try to change the culture underlying politics rather than just address the politics of the moment.” And I guess that’s what I think about with these plays, that I’d like whatever minuscule, tiny bit of influence I might have to be working at the deeper culture rather than at the politics of the moment.

What is the next Signature production? The next one is called Paradise Park and it’s about a guy who buys a ticket to get into an amusement park, like Coney Island or Disneyland and he finds that the amusement park has no walls, it just opens out onto the whole of America. And maybe all of us in the whole of America are just unconscious prisoners of a vast, distracting amusement park – I guess that is the moral of the story.

When did you write that? I wrote a version of it years ago but we never put it on anywhere. So this is the first time it’ll ever be done. I’ve done some work on it recently.

Do you go to see much theater these days?
Yeah. The truth is I’m crazy about dance; I see a lot of dance. And then I’m crazy about the kind of theater that’s a mixture of movement and music and text; I guess Pina Bausch is the most famous practitioner of this. And then I see a good bit of the work that comes to BAM. I don’t know if you saw James Thiérrée but he’s fabulous. There’s no language in these pieces but he’s an incredible maker of physical theater and I can never get enough of that.

What can you tell us about Kathakali and how did you decide to use that as a source for Queens Boulevard? Well, what I can tell you is really sort of intensely personal, that is to say the first Kathakali play I ever saw was during the time that my now 44-year-old daughter was getting married to a guy in India. This was ten years ago; we all went over for the wedding. He’s from the south of India in the province of Kerala, which is where Kathakali comes from. And in being there and hanging out with everyone and doing a lot of things around the event of their wedding, one of the things they did one night was to take me out into the middle of the woods in the middle of the night to see a Kathakali play. This was the first Kathakali play I’d ever seen. And then after they were married they came back and lived in Queens. So the idea of bringing a Kathakali play to Queens seemed totally normal to me.

That was my introduction to Kathakali. I only know subsequently what I’ve read and occasionally seen. But essentially a Kathakali piece goes on for hours and is really based on a script that is maybe no longer than a dozen pages. So it’s really filled with a tremendous about of physical performance: gestures, music and dance. And just in the most general terms that’s the kind of theater I’m most crazy about, so it just appealed to me.

What are you working on now?
When we went into this season at Signature there was such a flood of stuff all at once, and then there was the piece at BAM at the same time. So I set myself a deadline of November 1st to start on a new piece – I’m always making notes on 15-20 things at the same time, waiting to see which one wins. So I decided I would declare a winner November 1st and then I couldn’t do it. But I finally did on November 15th and I’m in the middle of working on it. I’m loving it; I’m just having a great time. And that’s a completely unstructured dance-theater piece with text and operatic arias and dancing.