A big air kiss blown at the romance of Gay (well, polysexual) Paree, Charles L. Mee’s “Fetes de la Nuit” is another upscale vaudeville from the pastiche artist who’s either one of the reigning delights of American theater or one of its most mystifyingly in-vogue cases of shiny-package-no-content. Depending on one’s point of view, of course. Past collaborator Les Waters’ premiere production at Berkeley Rep is lively, sometimes spectacular, expensive by nonprofit standards — but is such strenuous showmanship justified by a text that scarcely seems to be trying?
The evening is not dull, yet once all its confetti has settled, the whole business feels like an elaborate gold frame for notes scribbled on cocktail napkins. Among them are texts cribbed from Bataille, Barthes, Godard, Stein, Edmund White, Guy Debord and others. Visual friezes re-create the iconic photographs of Robert Doisneau.
Virtually the only “serious” moment in these two-plus hours is a bit called “The Other Paris,” which consists of the credits sequence from a Mathieu Kassovitz film showing angry Arab-immigrant rioters projected against the stage rear. Arresting coup de theatre, or just a very lazy way of letting someone else’s work provide “meaning” in your own?
Otherwise, “Fetes” consists of one-joke skits. Some are clever and amusing, like the pantomime where an older man on a park bench passes highly physical “messages” between the flirtatious heteros flanking him.
There are a few sharp lines, as when the pretentious object of “The Intellectual’s Press Conference” is asked, “Is there a role for woman in today’s society?” prompting the old-school hot-air response, “Yes, if she is charming…”
There are funny, over-the-top monologues for a woman (Maria Elena Ramirez) incongruously detailing her “Story of O”-like history of delicious degradation to a horrified cafe tablemate, and another (Lorri Holt) j’accuse-ing her past romantic failures to an equally masochistic degree. Running-gag dynamics include an on-and-off heterosexual couple (Dileep Rao, Maria Dizzia) and a ditto lesbian one (Holt, Michi Barall).
But other sequences milk banal comedy-routine Frog stereotypes, like the fussy fashion photog, the fussy wine connoisseur, etc.
Still others are the kinds of ideas funniest when you think them up yourself … when very, very high. Like having a squeaky-voiced man deliver “Taxi Driver’s” macho challenge “You talkin’ to me?” umpteen times. Or a sequence called “Gauloises,” wherein entire cast drifts onstage to light up. In “The Baguette,” they likewise crowd an invisible elevator with themselves and their bread loaves. It’s funny because, you know, baguettes! Gauloises!
In the “Fetes” program Mee boasts, “When I write, the text never comes first,” and elsewhere he has confessed he prefers to leave directors and casts alone to work out interpretation of said afterthought text. Clearly, he’s his own best critic.
The 47 vignettes comprising “Fetes” often have little to do with a writer’s contribution — especially the best ones, which are pure music and spectacle. There are several times when the cast breaks into dance (though Jean Isaacs gets credited only as “movement consultant,” not choreographer), or individuals show off impressive acrobatic, showgirl-balletic or breakdancing abilities.
The costume budget alone — for fanciful duds seldom seen more than once — must rival that for “Taboo,” allowing for nonprofit markdowns. Among all stellar design contributions, Christal Weatherly’s costumes do take top billing, as act one ends with a haute couture-parody of ludicrous fashions strutting down the runway to Serge Gainsbourg’s music. Act two ends with a sort of Follies Bergeres-cum-Bollywood pageant climaxing in a rainfall of pink feathers.
Such things are delightful in the moment. But they, and the relentless high energy of a large, talented cast, still leave a queasy feeling of maximum effort expended on almost nothing at all. “Fetes de la Nuit” lacks the surprise of “Hellzapoppin,” the wit of Wilde or any heart at all — though it assumes we’ll buy the illusion of all three.
It has no guiding intelligence, no real raison d’etre. Mee is just doodling on a canvas more expansive than any doodler deserves. This isn’t quite theater: It’s more a well-read dilettante’s channel-surfing.