Friday, February 4, 2005

Berkeley Rep’s "Fêtes de la Nuit" offers varying perspectives on amour

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

Just in time for Valentine’s Day Berkeley Rep presents Charles L. Mee’s “Fêtes de la Nuit,” a madcap kaleidoscope of viewpoints on amour-Parisian style. Directed by Les Waters, this production at the Roda Theatre offers naughty glimpses into romantic situations and everyday life inspired by Mee’s travels to Paris.

“Fêtes de la Nuit” starts out simple then gains momentum, thanks to music ranging from house style to Edith Piaf, impassioned dancing and a whirlwind of humorous vignettes including “Le Bistro,” “The Avant Garde,” and “Vin.” While not all interrelated, most contain some element of human sexuality such as desire. They also feature people of varying sexual orientations-straight, lesbian and gay. All the adventures occur amid Annie Smart’s minimalist set with its white stage, large draped curtain and simple rows of stairs.

“Le Bistro” evokes an authentic feel when a small gathering of men and women indulge in favorite Parisian pastimes: Smoking, drinking red wine and erupting into loud, impassioned debates-complete with arrogant, all knowing attitudes. Bruce McKenzie portrays Jean Francois-the brooding, chain-smoking, storyteller of the downtrodden-with brilliant wit.

“The Avant Garde” elicits giggles from the audience as a pianist, portrayed amusingly by Michi Barall, struggles to scoot her piano bench to just the right place. It’s all for naught because suddenly, she leaps on top of the piano and runs a string through its chords to produce bizarre sounds.

Joseph Kamal proves truly engaging as Barbesco. An intellectual, he gives an account of his various sexual dalliances that took place in the Jardin du Luxembourg as part of his speech at an academic conference.

“Fêtes de la Nuit” also features vibrant dancing. During a solo performance, dancer Jeffery Lynn McCann’s dexterity and athleticism mesmerizes as he makes a series of complex break dancing moves look effortless. And yet another, when 12 dancers-then 14-twist, turn and gyrate at a frenzied pace to highly charged music.

Costume designer Christal Weatherly’s highly imaginative creations, ranging from the impish to glamorous, provide the perfect accoutrements to this production. Especially during an outlandish fashion show with models proudly swaggering down a Paris runway. Standouts include Danny Scheie strutting about in a peacock blue suit accented with a flowing train of billowy, creme colored fabric. Maria Elena Ramirez epitomizes haute couture by donning a clingy black and white striped column dress and a hat adorned with large plums of white feathers. In keeping with the generally mischievous style of “Fêtes de la Nuit” there’s also a model wearing an 18th century white French wig with baskets of baguettes strapped to her hips.

This and many other scenes illustrate the playful charm of “Fêtes de la Nuit,” with Mee’s use of exaggeration as a means of conveying a sense of joir de vivre and a humorous way of looking at amour and daily life.

Two vignettes that don’t work and actually interrupt the chaotic rhythm of “Fêtes de la Nuit’s” are “Le Petomane” and “The Other Paris.” The first includes a tasteless bit centering around Le Petomane, portrayed by Bruce McKenzie, a 19th century performer who entertained crowds at the Moulin Rouge with his varied repertoire of flatulence. “The Other Paris” shows actual footage and news reports of rioting crowds in the outskirts of the city. It’s clearly meant as jarring but it feels totally out of place with the lighthearted feel of this play.

Overall however, “Fêtes de la Nuit” offers engaging tales as well as a breezy, cheeky approach sure to result in large amounts of laughter and plenty of eye candy.

“Fêtes de la Nuit” plays through Feb. 27 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street in Berkeley. Ticket prices range from $10 to $55 and can be purchased by calling 510-647-2949, toll free at 888-4-BRT-Tix or by visiting