Quietpassages 

Presented by Barestage Productions at UC Berkeley, through April 21

In the early part of the last century, the celebrated writer/actress Colette chronicled Paris' demimonde with compassion and sensuality while flouting convention by having affairs with men and women alike. But before she was the toast of Paris, she was a neglected bride, longing for her childhood home and uncertain of her gifts. Carissa Zeleski's leisurely quietpassages, adapted from Colette's autobiographical My Apprenticeships, seeks to give shape to that time while tracing the evolution of a homesick country girl to a self-assured woman of letters.At first Paris and la vie bohème do not suit young Sidonie Gabrielle Colette (played by Zeleski). "To venture outside is to drown in women who smile too much and men who see right through me," she says disdainfully. Her much older husband Willy (the blustering Rahul Gupta) is busy either telling other people what to write for him or seducing trollops, sending Gabrielle into a deathly funk. Pulled back from the brink by her quirky friends and her mother, she eventually develops a coolness and perspective that allow her to take up her pen and leave the jerk.

What should be an erotic undertone doesn't really take, except in a scene with the actress Polaire and her hot-tempered boyfriend. ("They are like two young tigers!" exclaims Colette, and for a moment we get a flash of her repressed desire and her disappointment with her dry sham of a marriage.) Seeing Willy in the constant embrace of sweet young things in fancy underwear quickly loses its charge. Unfortunately we never get to see the life Colette will go on to lead, and are instead subjected to a litany of how unhappy she is.

While the script is top-heavy and the acting patchy, quietpassages has its share of witty and truthful moments to recommend it. The interactions between the characters in front of and behind a backlit screen are graceful and elegant, and the overall tone is wistfully romantic. Some of the musical choices are odd: I found a strings version of U2's "With or Without You" very distracting. Striving for intimacy, quietpassages is presented in reverse round, with the theatergoers sitting on the floor while the action circles around them. This staging, while novel and adding a necessary sense of movement, was a strain for last Saturday's audience, some of whom, dizzy, eventually gave up and held one position, letting whole scenes unfold behind their backs. While some pillows are provided, it would be wise to bring as many as necessary to make the rehearsal hall's hard floor more comfortable.

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