Review: WINTERTIME is a romantic hot toddy up north

Charles Mee's ode to the zaniness of love at Berkeley Rep

By: Dec. 05, 2021

Review: WINTERTIME is a romantic hot toddy up north

To set the scene: a young woman has inflated an air mattress onto which she is now repeatedly flinging herself, pummeling it with her fists. While this is occurring, in another area of the stage, a slightly older man is using a snow blower to blast shredded holiday wrapping paper into the air. Simultaneously, another gentleman, still wearing the black teddy which he had donned to execute an enthusiastic strip tease, is now draped in Christmas lights which electrocute him as he stumbles across the stage. In case the accompanying strains of TURANDOT's "Nessun Dorma!" don't make it clear, all three of these individuals are 20 shades of miserable and they're not the only ones. Then we learn someone has fallen through the ice of a frozen lake. Curtain, Act 1.

Oh, and this is a comedy.

Should you place the above-described tableau as being a scene most distinctly "all about Mee," you are spot-on. WINTERTIME has come to the Bay Area. Charles L. Mee's rumination on the foibles of love and the love of foibles is enjoying a gloriously self-indulgent revival at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Roda Theatre through December 19. The Les Waters-directed production is every inch an old home week occasion at Berkeley Rep, featuring longtime company members James Carpenter, Sharon Lockwood and Lori Holt. Waters, the former Berkeley Rep associate artistic director and longtime Mee collaborator, returns to these very familiar stomping grounds 19 years after helming WINTERTIME's world-premiere for the Long Wharf Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse. Scenic Director Annie Smart (Waters' wife) is another bridge to that original production, which is notable since Berkeley Rep's WINTERTIME takes place in an empty white room.

Well, OK, it's not entirely empty. People are periodically trotting in doors to slam, chairs to annihilate and some of the other aforementioned props. The room's entrance is a door to a snowy outdoors, a door which is largely left open to the elements. Baby, it is cold outside and positively scorching within.

Our scene is a summer house somewhere in the mountains. Jonathan (played by Micah Peoples) has come for a cozy romantic weekend with his soon-to-be-fiancee, Ariel (Carmen Berkeley). Their cozy scene is interrupted by the discovery that the house is occupied by Jonathan's mother, Maria, (Nora el Samahy), her lover, Francois (Thomas Jay Ryan) and, soon thereafter, the arrival of Maria's husband, Frank (James Carpenter) and his lover Edmund (David Ryan Smith). Further crashing the party are neighbors Bertha (Lori Holt), Hilda (Sharon Lockwood) and, later still, a doctor (Sarah Nina Hayon) who knew Francois and Bob, a deliveryman and sometimes minister (Jomar Tagatac).

Every character professes to knowing something about the nature of love, which in no way prevents them from saying or doing something to bollox up the romantic harmony either of one of the other couples or their own. Suspicions turn into fights. Ultimately, someone dies, laying the second act groundwork for a funeral procession that is as grating as it is comedic.

It's all terrifically zany and plenty cerebral. Characters who should be simple, aren't. The guy who delivers the composter can cite Sappho or spout on about the inhabitants of the islands of Nacumera who have the heads of dogs ("we don't judge these people."). The old are every bit as ignorant in the ways of love as the young. Waters' cast can handle the madcap antic as well as the gloomier monologues about death and loss with equal aplomb.

A scene-stealing Ryan - his French accent as transient as a summer breeze - delights as the too-amorous Francois. Samahy's practical Maria and Berkeley's unfairly accused Ariel are the fitting bookends in Jonathan's instruction in the ways of women. Smith's Edmund may have set a record for the longest continuous crying jag.

With its blend of classics references and modern-day weirdness, Mee's crazy quilt of a play won't be for all tastes. On the other hand, when your work comes with a Spotify playlist that includes Maria Callas, Bostich and Bruno Mars, you do end up casting a rather wide creative net. The audience is encouraged to get into the act via a lobby message board that asks them to to post sticky notes detailing the craziest thing they ever did for love. My personal favorite: "I masturbated into a cup six times. The baby is due in August." Perfect.

Photo of the cast of WINTERTIME by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre



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