nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
October 21, 2010
Mark Rylance gives a tour-de-force performance as Valere in the new revival of La Bete ("The Beast") that is, by itself, worth the price of admission. Luckily there is much more here to appreciate. La Bete originally opened on Broadway in February 1991 and gives homage to the works of Moliere and the French classicists. This contemporary play written in rhyming verse and adhering to the traditional classical unities of time, place, and action is a treat for the intellect and as directed by Matthew Warchus a delight to the senses.
Playwright David Hirson's language soars with wit and hilarity, particularly in the superbly deft hands of Rylance, who executes his 25-minute monologue of crassness, idiocy, and broadly comedic slapstick in rhyming couplets as easily and naturally as breathing. (Though we all appreciate the real skill required for such a feat.) David Hyde Pierce is the cerebral Elomire (an anagram of Moliere) and is delightful as Valere's nemesis and rival playwright. Joanna Lumley makes a substantial and charmingly manipulative Princess, the patron of both of these archetypical artists.
The play is set in France in 1654 at the residence of Elomire, the Princess's current "Playwright in Residence." Elomire and his company have received a royal writ from the Princess, commanding them to accept her newly discovered talent, the street clown Valere, into their company. She intends that Valere and Elomire will now collaborate and that the common jester Valere will inject new life into Elomire's idealistic, moralizing, erudite (and possibly yawn-inducing) artistic endeavors. Still, the Princess herself compares Elomire's poetic gifts to those of the famous Corneille. At the curtain Elomire has just retreated from the dinner table recoiling from Valere's disgusting person and habits and regaling his colleague Bejart (played by the superlative Stephen Ouimette) with his revulsion to the idea of working with this clown. The Princess arrives in glitteringly glorious state and the conflict escalates. Valere must present his play "Two Boys From Cadiz" on the spot by Royal command, using Elomire's company of actors, to decide the ultimate fate of Valere, Elomire, and the troupe.
Greta Lee as Elomire's quirky maid, who can only speak in one-word syllables, is very funny, and the rest of the supporting players—Sally Wingert, Robert Lonsdale, Lisa Joyce, Michael Milligan, and Deanne Loretta (in this performance)—are excellent and perfectly cast in their roles as Elomire's company of actors.
The set and costumes are magnificent and support the location and period with elegance and understated beauty. The library shelves rising into infinity are a sight to behold and make a perfect backdrop for the action as the story unfolds. The lighting and special effects are simple and kept to a minimum but work quite well in context. Warchus keeps the play moving at a highly energized pace and our interest engaged throughout.
I was disappointed in the lack of development in some of the smaller characters. What the playwright does is give us only enough to stimulate our curiosity. I really wanted to know more about Elomire's maid and acting troupe as individuals. Too, we are sometimes left wondering whom we are to root for: the self-aggrandizing Valere or the smug Elomire? But maybe that is the point. Neither one of them is one hundred percent appealing. And while no one would want foolishness and mediocrity to triumph, neither would we wish our art merely didactic, particularly when said art is not grounded by heart and soul.
So despite Valere's boobery, perhaps the Princess was on to something after all: low brow comedy meeting high art—creating work that entertains and elevates—perhaps the two need not be mutually exclusive. It is certainly where Moliere's genius lay. Ironically upon further reflection the Princess's idea of art aptly describes this very production of La Bete. Hirson the poet has created a humorous and often slapstick comedy complete with toilet humor, double takes, and "slow burns" (a technique Pierce is master of) told in richly complex language and espousing high ideals. Does this muddle Hirson's message? Or is it the message? I think the final analysis is best left to the individual.
I certainly recommend this production to high brows and base buffoons alike. There is something in it for everyone. No one will head home disappointed.