Charles Mee Creates Romantic World of Silliness and Surprises In "Wintertime," a Frothy Farce at McCarter's Matthews Theatre
Amidst the hilarious rending of garments, throwing of plates, running into trees, slamming doors, a striptease, an array of rainbow colored undergarments, a Viking dinner and irreverent spoofing of many cherished notions of love, death and theater Charles Mee's Wintertime offers, surprisingly, some profound revelations on human nature and especially the human animal in love.
Mr. Mee claims that it is "crucial for a playwright to make the rules rather than to step in and accept somebody else's set of rules. If the playwright makes the rules then you can create a world that people have never been in before and they step into your world and then they see what it feels like to live there. It's inherently more surprising and more fun."
Full of surprises and full of fun, McCarter Theatre's current production of Wintertime takes its audiences to a decidedly bizarre world, but one in which even the most eccentric behaviors possess a familiar ring and the multiple manifestations and permutations of love will remind viewers of worlds closer to home. Under the direction of David Schweizer, an extraordinarily diverse and talented ensemble deftly captures just the right tone of constantly shifting farce and drama, rapture and meditation, the beautiful and the ugly that drive this high-spirited romantic comedy.
Mr. Mee, who turned to playwriting only fifteen years ago at age 49 after a distinguished career as an historian, sees his precursors as the artists Max Ernst and Robert Rauschenberg and his craft as that of a collagist. "There is no such thing as an original play," he contends, and Wintertime alludes to many different literary and cultural antecedents from Ancient Greece to the twentieth century. Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale or A Midsummer Night's Dream transposed to a contemporary setting with a substantial dose of Eugene Ionesco's Theatre of the Absurd ramified through Charles Ludlam's outrageous Ridiculous Theatrical Company of the 1970's and =8C80's with a classical operatic score provides some idea of the nature of this experience.
The setting is the snow-covered (inside and out) summerhouse of Maria (Marsha Mason) and Frank (Nicholas Hormann). The merriment or horror, depending on whose perspective you're viewing this from begins soon after their son Jonathan (McCaleb Burnett) and his prospective bride Ariel (Brienin Bryant) arrive for an intimate romantic sojourn. He plans to propose to her on New Year's Eve.
The sudden appearance of Jonathan's scantily clad mother, followed by her lover Francois (Michael Cerveris), quickly derails the young lovers' plans. Equally disconcerting for all is the subsequent arrival of Jonathan's father and his lover Edmund (T. Scott Cunningham), who were also looking forward to quiet days of post-holiday privacy and amour.
The colorful elderly lesbian neighbors, Hilda (Lola Pashalinski) and Bertha (Carmen deLavallade), the composter man (Danny Mastrogiorgio) making an off-season delivery and a lovely physician (Tina Benko) on a house call (who recognizes Francois as a lover from the recent past) all contribute richly to the frothy melange.
The main characters thrown together in a country house, the romantic complications causing crises in their lives, and the prospect of confused lovers and shifting alliances may remind audiences of any number of dramatic and comedic plots. Mr. Mee is hardly the first to explore the unpredictable and fickle behaviors of humans in love. "The course of true love never did run smooth," neither in Shakespeare's Dream nor in Charles Mee's Wintertime. Before its extravagantly wild denouement, however, Wintertime leads its audiences through territory at times operatic, often extreme, at times utterly silly, and often moving that may be astonishingly unfamiliar.
Mr. Mee first conceived of Wintertime as "a dark anguished tragic play," before realizing that this work was firmly in the grasp of the irreverent muse of comedy. As Aristotle observed, and Mr. Mee reminds us, "human beings are social animals, we create ourselves in our relationships to others." And, of course, we most vividly reveal our natures and ourselves when we are in love.
Mr. Schweizer and his actors create these characters with delightful color, panache and nuance, displaying perfect pitch and timing in the shifting of moods and tones from broad farce to meditation to poetic romance. There are no weak links in this finely tuned company.
Ms. Mason's Maria, as the matriarch of the proceedings, and Mr. Cerveris' Francois, as her heavily French accented lover, provide the core of the play. They are consistently entertaining in their constantly shifting and most extravagant pursuits of love and life culpable no doubt in their infidelities but endearing and even admirable at the same time.
Mr. Burnett and Ms. Bryan in the ing=E9nue roles paint a sympathetic and amusing picture of young love, which rapidly turns to disenchantment, bitterness and anger, which gradually transform into a certain wisdom and the courage to move on into a more mature, deeply loving relationship.
Mr. Hormann, engaging as the reasonable, articulate Frank, strikes a rather sad note in his unorthodox relationships with his unfaithful wife and his less-than-satisfied lover, while Mr. Cunningham is convincing as Edmund, suffering the doubts and disappointments of a gay man who constantly finds himself taking a back seat to his lover's wife and family.
Ms. Pashalinski comes close, at least three times, to stealing the show in her histrionics after falling into the lake, her rending of garments in mourning and her bickering relationship with her long-time lover not to mention a few other hilariously eccentric moments. As a founding member, with Charles Ludlam, of The Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Ms. Pashalinksi no doubt derives her extraordinary comic gift from that rich source of some of the funniest plays of the second half of the twentieth century. Ms. de Lavallade's Bertha provides her with a worthy and amusing counterpart.
Mr. Mastrogiorgio's charismatic composter man turns out to be an astonishingly well-read philosopher with a part-time job as deacon, performing funeral services on the side and providing yet another perspective on the tangles of love and death that threaten to overwhelm the play. The funeral service over which he presides near the end of the play is a hilarious masterpiece of black humor and parody. And, not to be outdone, Ms. Benko's amorous interloping doctor delivers a memorable cameo role, with an additional injection of eccentricity that helps lift the proceedings to an even higher strata of wackiness.
Andrew Lieberman's beautiful, romantic and mysteriously otherworldly set design features snowy whiteness throughout the large summer house living room. Outdoors and indoors interweave. There's a huge snowdrift in the living room, thin white frosted birch trees, and icicles hanging down from the light fixtures. From the outset there is much that is recognizable in this world, but it is obviously an unfamiliar, surreal world to be experienced for the first time. Kevin Adams' lighting design greatly enhances the creation of the changing tones, with the crucial shifts between realistic and surrealistic, between farce and serious drama.
Mr. Schweizer and his designers take advantage of their extensive experience in opera, employing extravagant scenic effects and a heightened sense of reality to express certain truths and deeper meanings.
A co-production with the Second Stage Theatre in New York, Wintertime, originally produced in 2002, will be moving to Off-Broadway after its Princeton run. Charles Mee's particularly irreverent, often cynical, unexpected and sometimes shocking world view may not suit everyone's taste in theatrics, but this brilliant, hilarious production provides an exciting introduction to a vibrantly original playwright and gives McCarter its second hit of the fall season.
Charles Mee's Wintertime will be playing at McCarter's Matthews Theatre through November 2. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter. org for additional information.