By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Jay Muhlin|
FOR THE PAST SEVEN YEARS CHUCK MEE HAS LIVED in Cobble Hill, a quiet Brooklyn neighborhood that quietly became hip almost overnight. Despite the area's growing profile, Mee's abbreviated street maintains a kind of New England solitude; to reach his home, a visitor enters the basement level of a century-old, four-story brownstone. The playwright and historian who wrote Big Loveand Meeting in Potsdamhandles the steps with two cuffed crutches, just as he has handled steps and sidewalks every day since 1953, when he contracted polio as a teenager. In the cruelest of twists, paralysis felled him while, attired in a white-jacket tuxedo, he was on his first date.
"There was to be dinner and swimming," he recalls in his book, A Nearly Normal Life. "A local country club had let the students use its clubhouse, and there would be an evening of wandering out onto the veranda, strolling out onto the golf course . . . In the parking lot at the club, I felt dizzy."
The chaos of polio made Mee's life the opposite of a well-made play, and he frequently describes his work in terms of jagged fragmentation: dialogues and imagery that shatter into pieces and are then reassembled in a kind of cubist rebirth.
In L.A., Mee currently has two works up: a boisterous production of Big Love at Pacific Resident Theater, and the premiere of Songs of Joy and Destitutionat Open Fist. We spoke about his career over veggie wraps and potato salad in a nearby café. Mee's face, dominated by a set of watchful Gary Cooper eyes and a wide nose, seems nowhere near his age, and, sporting a red Land's End jacket, he looked as though he might be a ski instructor. Mee speaks in deliberate, matter-of-fact sentences and in the kind of voice that John Hersey might have used if he'd ever read Hiroshima as a bedtime story.
Songs of Joy and Destitution(see review in Calendar), directed by Matthew Wilder, is actually a coupling of two earlier Mee reinterpretations, Trojan Women: A Love Storyand Orestes. Greek scholars will have little difficulty discerning Mee's departures from Euripides: Amid recitations from Hannah Arendt, Slavenka Drakulic, Amy Vanderbilt and Geraldo, Menelaus struts around like a Latin American caudillo, and Apollo appears in the form of George W. Bush holding a fuck-me doll. The evening explores the nature of war and conquest — things that are very much on Mee's mind during the crisis over Iraq, which he sees as America's attempt to establish an imperial presence in the Middle East.
"Matt Wilder called me about directing a work of mine," Mee says of the show's origins, "and I suggested he do the first act of Trojan Women and boil down Orestes, using the script that David Schweizer had made for his Actors Gang production."
Mee, in fact, gives all comers carte blanche with his work.
"My plays are on the Internet," he says. "I encourage people to download and remake them however they want. If they end up doing something that's more or less faithful to my play, then I ask them to get in touch with my agent. If they do something else they should just put their name to it and do it. I just say, 'Here's the script, see you on opening night. Call me if you want to.'"
Before our interview I had stood in a Staples store next to the art critic Robert Hughes, who, thanks to a car crash, now requires the use of a crutch. He's still luckier than Mee, whose condition has worsened since the publication of his polio memoir. He's weaker, Mee admits, but when I ask him about the desirability of installing a ramp or elevator to make it easier for him to go up and down his building's steps, he demurs. "I don't want anything like that," he says, "it makes you use your body less."
Mee's work, like his career, is a study in tangents. He came to New York in 1960, after Harvard, and began writing for the theater but got diverted by the Vietnam War into activism and, eventually, into writing history and editing Horizon magazine. Mee didn't write for the stage again until 1985 but hasn't looked back since.
Collage is the word most often used to describe his plays, which are known for their ricocheting ideas and free appropriation of songs and text from both pop culture and Greek classics; it's an authorial strategy that early on made Mee the darling of semioticians but left him unknown to most theatergoers. Then, in 2000, the Humana Theater in Louisville premiered Big Love, a retrofit of Aeschylus' The Suppliants, and suddenly Mee began showing up on everyone's go-to list of playwrights. The next year Anne Bogart staged his eccentric assemblage of 1950s suburbiana, Bobrauschenbergamerica, while, locally, David Schweizer directed an enormously successful version of his Berlin Circle at the Evidence Room.
MEE'S ENDURING TOUCHSTONE HAS BEEN THE Greeks, to whom he was introduced in his very first weeks of paralysis by one of his school teachers.
"I think that in all their plays the Greeks consciously tried to identify human problems and conditions. You put on a play today that was written 2,500 years ago, and it seems prophetic."