Not Too Presentable Love: ‘Wintertime’ slams doors at Berkeley Rep

FRANCOIS

You know, I have never pretended to be other than

a bad person

MARIA

And you are.

How you are:

it is not funny

it is not charming

FRANK

It’s not even French, necessarily.

From Wintertime, by Charles L. Mee

Since the early ’60s, Charles L. Mee has been has been teasing and challenging American theater and its audiences with plays, and attitudes toward playwriting, that refuse to follow the rules. On his website, the (re)making project, he states, “There is no such thing as an original play,” and compares his process to that of painter/sculptor/poet Max Ernst when he created his FaTaGaGa collages.

Mee uses sources as diverse as Molière and Magritte, Chekov, Shakespeare and the Greeks, snipping and reconstructing, in a process perhaps comparable to sampling in music. And then his own fertile imagination connects the stories, creating scripts that celebrate — and sometimes gently mock — the original texts.

A Harvard graduate, Mee became part of Greenwich Village’s arts scene, writing plays produced by companies such as La MaMa E.T.C. and the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre. But he took an extended break from playwriting, turning instead to literature, and publishing books such as Meeting at Potsdam (1975) and A Visit to Haldeman and Other States of Mind (1976). 

By 1985, theatre was calling again. Joseph Papp picked up Mee’s 1988 play, The Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem, described by a reviewer as “one lavish performance art party,” for a run at New York’s Public Theater. And thus began a virtual torrent of plays, including groupings that Mee calls Love Stories, More Love Stories,Wild and Crazy Plays, Heaven on Earth, The Lives of the Artists, The Streets of New York, Paris Nights and Days, History Plays, Hell on Earth, Tragedies: The Greeks, Re-made Remakings, and Love Sonnets [Monologues]. 

On Nov. 12, Wintertime, one of the “Love Stories,” opens at Berkeley Rep. Mee describes the 2002 play on the (re)making project like this: “A sweet, dreamy, romantic comedy from the world of The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard and Molière and Magritte. This play is a companion piece to Summertime, which has the same characters and setting, set in another season.” In Wintertime, explains one non-Mee summary: “Jonathan and Ariel plan a weekend alone at his parents’ country cottage. His mother turns up with her French boyfriend. Later, his father arrives with Edmund, his boyfriend. Then, to complicate things, a lesbian couple lost in the snow walks in.”

The Rep has a history with both Mee and the director of the piece, Les Waters, having previously presented the world premiere of Mee’s Fêtes de la Nuit, as well as staging Big Love, both directed by Waters, who served as the company’s associate artistic director from 2003 to 2011. 

Waters met Mee years ago when he was working at London’s Royal Court Theatre, known worldwide as “the writers’ theatre.” He and Mee would meet, and Mee would show him what he was working on. When Waters emigrated to the U.S. and began teaching at UCSD, he directed the first workshop of Big Love, and then went on to direct it at the Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and then at Berkeley Rep. He has consistently worked with Mee ever since.

“I love the intimate drama and big spectacle [of Mee’s plays],” he said.

The Berkeley Rep site summarizes Wintertime‘s plot as, “Members of a gloriously eccentric family arrive at their summer house in the winter woods for supposedly secret rendezvous — and soon bodies collide, doors slam, dishes fly, and everyone’s perfect plans go fantastically awry.”

Reached in New York as he was preparing to open a Broadway show, Waters would not disagree with that description. He first directed Wintertime in 2002 at the La Jolla Playhouse. Asked why the decision to revive the show now, he said, “It’s a celebration of people, and how wonderful and limited we are. And it is a hymn to love.”

This production, he noted, features both an entirely new cast and entirely different designs. “The whole thing will change,” he said.

Rehearsing a play like Wintertime requires actors who can handle both the language and the physical movement. With those qualities available, new discoveries are always possible, as actors and director explore the script anew.

Then comes the question of accessibility for audience members who may not be familiar with all the references and cross-references. Waters thinks most people do not catch all of them, and it doesn’t interfere with their enjoyment of what is, on top of everything else, a door-slamming farce. 

As audiences return to live theater after long pandemic shutdowns, Waters believes, “the quality of listening has changed. People are acutely listening,” he said. 

Wintertime may well be the perfect choice for audiences seeking not only entertainment, but entertainment they can acutely listen to, as well as visually enjoy.

Because, as Mee explains on the (re)making project, “I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world.”

Wintertime, Nov. 12-Dec.19, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre. (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org
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