The instantly recognizable blue logo for the A train provides the "a" in the sign reading "Once Upon A Time" that hangs high above the stage upon which You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase is performed. It alerts spectators that what they will see is not your typical take on New York City; and the creative force behind it, Theatre 167, is not your usual theater company. The company takes its name from the 167 languages spoken in its birthplace of Jackson Heights, Queens, and describes its mission as bringing together voices from a multiplicity of backgrounds in an intensely collaborative process of theatrical creation. You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase is the middle play in The Jackson Heights Trilogy, which also includes 167 Tongues and Jackson Heights 3AM and was written collaboratively by a total of 18 playwrights. Audiences do not, however, need to be familiar with the other plays in the trilogy to thoroughly enjoy this magical realist tale of hope, love, diversity, and community in New York City.
After a brief opening swirl of rumors about people being changed into other things and where people shouldn't go and don’t belong, which is evocative of the oral transmission of folk knowledge and stories, the main plot kicks off with Ecuadorian Laurita (Mariana Cardenas) and Brooklynite Joe (Kevis Hillocks) experiencing a storm-tossed descent into LaGuardia Airport. Laurita is bound for her abuela in Queens, but an accidental swapping of suitcases with Joe leaves her without the necessary phone number or address and sets her on a rich, strange journey that ultimately becomes a connecting thread among a range of characters. The denizens of this enchanted version of Jackson Heights include Marta (John D. Haggerty), an elderly woman who tells Laurita that her task is to fill the seemingly empty suitcase that has come into her possession; Raisa (Tori Ernst), whose solace as the bride-to-be of controlling, abusive "giant" Viktor (Michael Markham) comes from reading romantic tales; Isha (Pooya Mohseni), whose purchase from electronics hustler Salomão (Nic Grelli) turns out to be more than just a ruby-colored cell phone; a street urchin (Nathaniel Gotbaum) who speaks Ravenish; and a prince, Octavio (Mauricio Pita) and his companion (Derick James Sherrier, Jr.) straight out of a storybook -- literally.
Stories and storytelling comprise a central concern of You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase. Piles of books litter a central platform, the spines of giant volumes frame the stage, and the individual stories of one New York neighborhood’s diverse inhabitants collide with elements from a range of folk stories. There are abundant echoes of fairy tale elements: metamorphoses, a supernaturally-granted child, prophetic riddles, curses, magical objects, and, of course, the triumph of true love. While the play makes the point that the real world, the real New York City, is unpredictable and may leave one with nothing aside from hope, it also emphasizes, as one character says, that "love does live here." It employs its fairy tale tropes not so much to subvert them -- excepting one great twist on someone or something turning into a handsome prince -- as to create a sense of wonder and possibility. At its core, the production is a heartfelt, optimistic tale of coming together, both at the individual and community levels.
The actors are uniformly excellent, and the characters whom they create are charming; while the "twist on a fairy tale" trope may sound like something we have seen before and New York City is no stranger to the strange, You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase creates a fresh, fun, lively vision that will appeal to lifelong residents, the newest of arrivals, and the other 7 million people in the City. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler