Fart jokes, pink feathers, exaggerated Frawnch accents, and a stageful of actors aggressively smoking cigarettes: It's "Let's Make Fun of the French Day" over at the Berkeley Rep, but it's so silly and cute it's hard to get all Gallic about it. This is not France as it is, but our fantasy of France, all crepes (prepared on stage, but not shared with the audience) and carnality; a land where every wine-soaked moment is imbued with passion and even the waiters don't really have to work.
It's not a bad fantasy to have, as the movie Amélie showed us to the tune of $174 million in gross receipts a few years back. In this pairing of director Les Waters with Charles Mee's new Fêtes de la Nuit, it's frothy and visually delightful. The last time these two did something together at the Rep we got Big Love, which bore more than a passing resemblance to this show (calling it a play would be a real stretch). For example, there's a segment called "Are you talking to me?" that seems like nothing more than an excuse to have the adorable Danny Scheie use a silly voice and climb the proscenium, just like one of the characters in Big Love. There are also a couple of dance numbers -- again, a stretch -- that look suspiciously like the moment in the earlier play when the fifty sisters kill their grooms on their wedding night.
But who cares? There's so much going on in those moments, with people screaming good-naturedly and hugging, hitting, and dragging each other around, that it's hard to remember that plays usually have dull old things like narrative weighing them down. And Mee's point appears to be that life, especially in Paris, really is just a series of moments, all equally important and equally absurd. So why stress?
A few stories are loosely threaded through this patchwork of vignettes, mostly about couples hooking up and trying to make it work. "Would you marry me?" asks one earnest young man. "Or have coffee with me? Where we could have the conversation that would lead to you marrying me?" And there are some characters, such as Bruce McKenzie's dour, buzz-killing Jean-François, who show up often enough that we start to know them in a cheerfully superficial way, like the people in language textbooks.
A big deal has been made about the nudity in Fêtes. Besides the warnings in the lobby and the program, the Rep's artistic director Tony Taccone even uses the area of the program allotted him to defend it. But we're not talking here about Hair or Oh! Calcutta. Audiences saw more naked men in Take Me Out when it played over in San Francisco recently. And what nudity there is takes place in a scene set in a life-drawing class, for crying out loud. Berkeley audiences might be more horrified by the scene ("Gauloises") where pretty much the entire cast unrepentantly smokes onstage. Much sexier, for my money, is a scene where a series of fully clothed, giggling women climb into a massive bed together, or the one where two people flirt on a park bench, using a man who sat down between them as a conduit for their passion.
Other than a couple of moments that address the downside of French life -- video projection of the student riots, and a dialogue between two earnest men laying out the different criminal skills associated with hoods of various nationalities -- Fêtes is a sweet, creamy little dessert of a show, perfect for springtime. Bon appétit.
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