Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Wintertime’ is hilarious and poignant slam poetry

(L to R) Anger reaches a fever pitch for Maria (Nora el Samahy) (Maria), Edmund (David Ryan Smith) (Edmund), Jonathan (Micah Peoples) (Jonathan), Frank (James Carpenter) (Frank), and Francois (Thomas Jay Ryan) in Berkeley Rep’s “Wintertime” by Charles L. Mee, directed by Les Waters. (Cover photo) Ariel (Berkeley) Hilda (Sharon Lockwood), Bertha (Lorri Holt), Frank (Carpenter), Francois (Ryan), Bob (Jomar Tagatac) and Jonathan (Peoples) throw an underpants party. (All photos by Kevin Berne)

One of the loveliest moments in the breathtaking aria “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from L’Elisir d’amore” by Gaetano Donizetti, is when the peasant Nemorino is convinced that the fair and wealthy Adina loves him. It’s a scintillating progression of feelings and thoughts, a bel canto staple driven by the heart.

That’s what makes the moment the aria is used in the remarkably quirky production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of Charles L. Mee’s “Wintertime” such a reflection of the show’s brilliance as a whole. Director Les Waters, who spent many years at Berkeley Rep creating the most fantastic visuals on the famed East Bay stage, pulls no punches here.

You see, while love is grand, it’s also a reason to get angry. Being stuck in love, like being stuck in a winter snowstorm, can be tiresome and infuriating.

As the strains of Nemorino reach a fever pitch while he sings to the heavens, a door – a big, obnoxious red door in a room as plain as day, is the center of a slamming contest, the most pathetic slam poetry one could imagine. Irony at its most luscious.

The denizens who take root in this summer house encompassed by winter do a whole lot to keep the sweet, sweet lovin’ hot and heavy. There are more combinations than a bloody Scrabble game in there, and as the kids say, it’s all bad.

Things get going in the most unconventional of ways. Jonathan (Micah Peoples) and Ariel (Carmen Berkeley) make it to the getaway house to continue all the romancin’ built in other locales. But before passions can be activated fully, in steps Jonathan’s silky-robed mother Maria (Nora el Samahy) with her even silkier-robed French lover Francois (Thomas Jay Ryan) to reveal plenty of secrets that throw Jonathan into a grand tizzy. Even more lovers decide to descend on the home, including Jonathan’s pop Frank (James Carpenter) and his handsome young lover Edmund (David Ryan Smith), and before you know it, Nemorino and the door.

Doctor Jacqueline (Sarah Nina Hayon) makes a house call to assist Ariel (Berkeley) and others.

To add even more angst to the proceedings, two neighbors who are having a hell of a time with ice fishing (Lorri Holt and Sharon Lockwood) pop in to deliver more hilarity. Making some critical appearances to tie some things together with cool philosophy and pragmatism is Bob (Jomar Tagatac), first to deliver a composter and then later delivering a sermon. Finally, a doctor named Jacqueline (Sarah Nina Hayon), shows up to add even more disruption.

The brilliance of the play is that audiences are presented with two very distinct dynamics – a narrative that is slapstick and farcical but one you have to work for. The comedy is pointed, exploring both the beauty and absurdity of love, which include impassioned pleas for understanding.

More than one of the rich characters approach love as a wistful dynamic – regret abounds all over the stage, but the characters massively hint at the inability to get out of their own ways. More than one decries a horrific choice in the ways of love, only to go on to make choices even more horrific. Love is as much about misery as it is about joy. As with any dynamic when it comes to affairs of the heart, self-discovery is of the utmost importance.

Consider Francois’ hilarious striptease, which is also a critical piece of his own path to understanding. Ryan’s French accent is never not funny, with a hint of pouty, pursed lips. Within that moment of self-introspection as he changes into some ghastly holiday lingerie does his humor soar. “A person wants to be seduced, that is all. Because a person likes to be desired and flattered and wooed.”

This thought carries major weight, often the through line of the piece.

What is thrilling is the cohesion of the fantastic talent that’s been assembled, plying their skilled craft on Annie Smart’s deceptively grand set with lots of subtle touches. A Waters’ show always has a scenic surprise up its sleeve, and that’s still true here.

Each character is given moments to shine in act one, before the true ensemble spirit is activated fully in act two through an oddly comical memorial service and then a skivvy party with toilet paper on leaf blowers (a very ingenious effect by the way).

Carpenter and el Samahy’s characters engage in the most heartbreaking conversation loaded with real talk, the idea that love is not just empty platitudes. Peoples and Berkeley are forced into some serious range with their arc and hit lots of high points to contribute to the narrative. Holt and Lockwood are missed every time they leave the stage, building a leitmotif that keeps the audience rolling. And Tagatac enters the fray as a sort of sage, there to deliver a composter but really delivering philosophy in adroit fashion.

It might be said that love is patient, kind and never boastful, but it’s also messy as hell, absurd, ridiculous and downright infuriating. The distinctions of love that astute observer Mee creates are unconventional to say the least. After all, if someone is justifying their love by cheating only on Fridays as a matter of principle, it probably makes for a glorious Saturday through Thursday. Or maybe not. Who the hell knows?

If anything, when love proves too confounding, just slam a door and enjoy some opera.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Wintertime”
Written by Charles L. Mee
Directed by Les Waters
The word: There’s nothing linear about this wild and messy exploration of love, penned by the astute observations of Mee. All kinds of brilliance and hilarity, with fantastic Bay Area actors in key roles, makes for a grand return of Berkeley Rep.
Berkeley Rep Roda Theatre
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
ID and proof of vaccination required
Tickets range from $25 – $104
For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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