It's only been a few years since the Gallic reticence to invade a sovereign nation under spurious circumstances earned them the ire of Joe Six-Pack. Mr. Six-Pack (who'd never given France a second thought previously) swore off eating Brie, demanded Mimi's Café take down its French flag, poured wine down the toilet and renamed French fries "freedom fries." John Kerry's apparent Frenchiness helped sink his chances at becoming President, and veterans of wars past joined in to suggest France would be speaking like Udo Kier if it hadn't been for us. That France made the right decision—which was evident as soon as Iraq was invaded—was remarkably beside the point. In the opinion of the U.S., the French were snobs . . . and too damn smart and . . . and . . . that was bad.
The flip side is that without France, we wouldn't have Jean Genet, cuisine, Godard, champagne, Les Miserables, existentialism, the guillotine, Audrey Tautou or Fetes de la Nuit. Roughly translated as "Night Party," Charles Mee's pastiche is a series of multimedia images, jokey blackouts, philosophical speeches, dialogue lifted from movies, iconic music and nimbly staged dance numbers gathered together with the clichés of French culture and pitched into a blender, creating, in an elegant series of 46 scenes, a love letter to a place Mee clearly adores.
Vibrant and exhilaratingly alive, this deeply personal portrait shows us the city, warts and all: rude black-vested waiters, elaborate food, sultry chanteuses, lots and lots of Gauloises cigarettes, Edith Piaf, ornate French storytelling, the grittier aesthetics of sex, the Eiffel Tower, bicycle shorts, fashion shows, performance art, the country's simmering racism, and Yves Montand all make appearances.
Mee generously allows for productions to cut his plays as they see fit, making the work their own, so future productions of the play elsewhere could be shorter, but I can't see why anyone would want to mutilate this lovely work. Do all scenes work? Yes, more or less, but if you find there's one not to your liking, the scattershot approach Mee uses allows you to be disinterested for only a few moments. Don't get his riffs on porn philosopher Georges Bataille (or is it Pauline Réage)? The notorious movie La Haine? Proust or La Nouvelle Vague filmmakers? No worries: Mee's on to the next moment before you know it.
Director/choreographer Annie Loui stages all of this to great effect, but she's better at artfully moving bodies from scene to scene and creating stage pictures than she is directing riveting performances. The inconsistent French accents often sound more like parodies than serious attempts, but the cast has high energy and their evident excitement about the production is contagious.
It's really a damn shame UC Irvine's production of Fetes de la Nuit is only staged for two weekends because this is one of the first plays I've seen in a long time that would easily bear up under repeated viewings. Like a single trip to Paris, you simply won't understand everything, but you go anyway.
Sit at the café table . . . with an empty chair beside you, waiting to be filled. Or sit with a friend you can argue philosophy with. Read that dense novel you've been putting off. Close your eyes and taste the bitterness of the cappuccino. Kiss that boy or girl on that moonlight-drenched park bench.
Don't let this pass you by: it's worth your time—and a damn sight cheaper than an airline ticket.
FETES DE LA NUIT AT THE UC IRVINE WINIFRED SMITH HALL THEATRE, 4000 MESA RD., IRVINE, (949) 824-2787; WWW.ARTS.UCI.EDU. THURS., APRIL 26, 8 P.M.; SAT., 2 & 8 P.M. $9-$17.