Love and Grief in “The Late Wedding”
The Late Wedding — written by UC Berkeley alumnus Christopher Chen — is a play about marriages, all of the different reasons people have for entering them, and all of the ways that they conduct themselves once within them. Performed in November 2022 by the Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies department and directed by Peter Glazer, it is based on the works of Italo Calvino and structured as if it were crafted by its director from the notes of the playwright. As a result, the play moves across genres, beginning as an anthropological exploration of the marriage and courtship traditions of various imaginary tribes, then transforming into a spy thriller about a woman whose marriage has fallen apart because her wife is obsessed with the revolution occurring in their country. Its final movement is set in space, about a playwright who has hitched a ride with astronauts on his journey to find his wife.
One of the most important conceits of The Late Wedding is the way that it provides its audience with glimpses of the consciousness that pulses at its center. The play is full of theater makers: playwrights show up as characters throughout the play, and the astronauts put on a play-within-a-play during their section. At other times, the characters break into notes that the playwright has supposedly written to himself; we hear about his grocery lists, his appointments, his ideas for other plays, and so on.
This self referentiality is present from the very start of the show, as the audience is guided through the vignettes that make up the first section by an anthropologist-narrator who promises that the play will seduce them. The first step in this seduction is a depiction of the marriage customs of the Bakaan people, who are obsessed with memory. A Bakaan couple opens the play with a conversation about their memories of a past vacation. They are disturbed when they encounter discrepancies, and together they must smooth over the memory again and again until they are sure that they are remembering things the same way.
Another couple comes from a tribe that believes the best part of marriage is the anticipation beforehand, so the two embark upon separate, never-ending honeymoons. They acquire secondary partners and even have children with them, but they still call each other every day to talk. The audience bears witness to the slow breakdown of their relationship via the increasing, tragicomic desperation of their phone calls.
As I remember the way the couple spoke longingly about the “halcyon days” they knew they would have in the home they had bought but had yet to inhabit, I begin to feel that, in many ways, the play is about being afraid to go home — whether that home is a place or a person — because what if home isn’t the same as you remember it?
The astronauts confront this idea most directly when they explain the reasons for their voyage. They used to be sailors, they say, who traveled around the world, only to return home and find it changed: their city smaller, their loved ones pale imitations of the people they remembered. After concluding that this city was a ghost city, the people ghost people, the sailors left on another voyage around the globe — and eventually out into the stars — in search of their real home. This seemed like such a tragedy — floating endlessly, alone among the cold stars, waiting to re-encounter a feeling that you lost at sea.
The Late Wedding feels like a play about what happens when we can’t look directly at each other, or at what has happened in our lives. It’s about the ways that we make distance between ourselves and the people we love, or between ourselves and things that we don’t want to admit are true. We watch the play’s people go to great lengths to avoid being present, being home, with one another, until finally the playwright on the spaceship manages to face something he’s been ignoring. The wife he is searching for has died.
He stands, back to the audience, looking at a shadow outlined against the stars, and tells the story of her death. The play reveals itself here, as what it has perhaps always been: a kind of final serenade to a woman whose face we never see, whose death the consciousness of the play has not been able to acknowledge until this very last moment. The Late Wedding cartwheels through myriad lives, myriad universes, even, but it ends here, on a beach in outer space, with grief, and with love.