Charles L. Mee's Fêtes de la Nuit
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Charles L. Mee's valentine to Paris, Fêtes de la Nuit, on the Roda Theatre stage through February 27th. This is a sensual celebration, racy and at times erotic in contemporary Paris. The production is a collage of scenes, songs and dance, and contains strong language, explicit sexuality and full nudity.
Fêtes de la Nuit actually has no plot, with the exception of Henry (Dileep Rao) wanting Yvette (Maria Dizzia) to have coffee with him, dine with him or marry with him. They end this stimulating festivity with Yvette telling what she expects of Henry if she is to become his live-in girlfriend. There is also hilarious commentary on Catherine (Lorri Holt) wanting to reconcile with her lover Sumiko (Michi Barall), and a very boring individual Jean Francois (Bruce Mckenzie) who sends the ensemble fleeing off stage every time he starts a "shaggy dog" story.
Mee's vaudevillian spoof sketches come fast and furious, some lasting only a few minutes. Each scene is announced on a screen to the rear of the stage. The stage itself is brilliantly lit in bright colors with a series of steps, like those on an MGM sound stage for a musical, descending to the floor. Props are used in many of the scenes, such as a wonderful, huge French antique bed that houses five lovely ladies with Lartique (James Carpenter) talking photos and finally jumping into bed the delightful girls.
Many of the scenes remind me of Monty Python skits, such as "Gauloise," when each of the ensemble comes strolling out smoking a Gauloise in single, duo and trio groups. Our boring friend Jean Francois comes out to tell a dull story, and the artists slowly walk off the stage to avoid hearing it. The same happens to this poor guy at a dinner table when he tries to recount a mundane instant with as much detail as a Satre novel. He ends up playing a French accordion while the title "The Existential Accordionist" flashes on the screen behind. One of the ensemble (Corinne Blum) tries her hand as an avant guard pianist by strumming the piano strings from a prone position on top of the instrument. There is a wild masochistic Apache number by the group and they even try a hilarious take on the tango. Hip hop dancing by Jeffery Lynn Mccann, also known as B-Boy Machine, is amazing in his short time on the stage.
James Carpenter, one of the Bay Area's favorite actors, is droll as a photographer with hip boots and an air tube around his waist, walking out onto the stage as if spotting water fowl. He wants to take a photo of the audience and asks every one to say "Fromage." That scene is, of course, called "Fromage." There is wild and wonderful Danny Scheie breaking up the audience in some of the skits, such as when he comes onto the stage and says "You looking at me?" with a superb French comic accent. He repeats it constantly; the audience rocks with laughter as he comes into the crowd and climbs up a ladder to one of the upper boxes.
There is another terrific scene with three members of the ensemble in a large wine vat dancing like Lucy did in her classic television comedy, which ends with an audience wine tasting. There is also a scene straight out of a Marx Brothers film called "Baguettes," and a terrific put-on of a French photo shoot with Corinne Blum doing a perfect French model and Danny Scheie as a fey photographer.
One can't forget Jean Francois as a French circus master whose name is Le Petomane (look it up in your French dictionary if you want to know the meaning) doing a gaseous rendition of the "Marseilles" while commanding the audience to stand up. (There was a famous man who worked at the Moulin Rouge in the 1800's who did this act.) The scene of Lori Holt as Catherine the lesbian lover when Michi Barall as Sumiko walks out of her life is a Sara Bernhardt performance at the Comedies Francaise.
There is a serious and lovely side to this farce. One memorable scene takes place with two nudes, male (Joe Mandrgona) and female (Sally Clawson), in a sketching class. Their slow movements while the ensemble sketches them are erotic but not crude. It is truly a work of art. There is also a serious scene of "the other side of Paris," showing riots in the streets by students and esthetic groups. The artist makes it known that Paris is not the same today as it was years ago when it was the center of creative and individual thinking. There is discussion of the American cultural influence on the city, the forbidden wearing of head scarves by Muslim students in school and McDonald's influence in food, among other current facts. There are great performances by Joseph Kamal as an existentialistic lecturer on love, Ramiz Monsef shinning in the dance segments, Maria Elena Ramirez as the lady looking for the man of her dreams and Dileep Rao as the sincere young man in love with Yvette.
Fêtes de la Nuit has two big production numbers. The fashion act that closes the first act has got to be seen to be believe. Christal Weatherly's costumes are absolutely out of this world and some of the campiest costumes for the men are a scream. Just to see James Carpenter in an outfit with a huge woman's hat and a blue veil trailing behind him will knock your socks off. The final big number at the end of the travesty is a real spoof of the "Folies Bergere," in which everyone gets into the act. Red feathers rain down from the rafters making for a mad-cap ending. All of this was put together by Director Les Waters, who has done a super job with tight and quick-changing scenes with no dull spots.
Fêtes de la Nuit plays at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley through February 27th. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or toll free 888-4-BRIT-Tix or visit www.berkeleyrep.org Bridge and Tunnel performed by Sarah Jones is still playing on the Thrust stage. Geoff Hoyle and Sharon Lockwood in For Better or Worse on the Thrust Stage on March 11.