Hirson’s 1991 play is set in 17th century France, where an actor named Elomire leads a theatrical troupe whose existence is made possible by royal sponsorship. Everything’s going fine until the troupe is forced by their patron to take on a new member – Valere, a street performer who caught the patron’s eye. Alas, Valere turns out to be a vulgar, egotistical buffoon who spits, farts, burps, and impolitely scratches himself at every opportunity, and talks so much that no one else can get a word in edgewise: “‘Shut up! Shut up! Give someone else a chance!’ / I’ve had that said to me all over France.” Even getting a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth doesn’t stop Valere from talking. Elomire is so outraged that he’ll do anything to keep Valere out of his troupe, and this leads to a confrontation with the patron in which more than Valere’s employment ends up being at stake.
Ian Merrill Peakes plays Elomire, and he seems every bit the classical stage star; the wide range of inflections in his voice gives the show the authenticity it needs. He has all the elegance that Valere lacks. Yet, oddly, Peakes doesn’t always seem suitably outraged. Many times during Greer’s monologue, he smiles and laughs, as if he’s admitting to the audience that, yes, this Valere guy is pretty funny after all. La Bęte would work better if Valere’s antagonist seemed more, well, antagonized.
Dito van Reigersberg plays Prince Conti, the troupe’s foppish, self-assured patron. While he’s excellent, I do think that the play’s terrific 2010 Broadway revival did the right thing by changing the prince to a princess, which made the play less stuffy and gave the dialogue more tonal variety. There’s strong support from the rest of the cast, especially James Ijames and Amanda Schoonover. Schoonover is charming and giddy, but her character – a maid who only speaks in monosyllabic rhymes – is a self-indulgent step too far by Hirson.
La Bęte goes a bit awry in its second act, as its characters are developed in a way that isn’t fully satisfying. Elomire seems less noble and Valere seems less of a buffoon, and the inconsistency isn’t fully resolved. But under Emmanuelle Delpech’s accomplished direction, it’s never less than interesting.
The cleverness in La Bęte extends to the Arden’s physical production. James Kronzer’s regal set may appear sedate and historically accurate at first, but look again – it uses forced perspective and bright, solid-line accents to add a modern touch. Similarly, Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s baroque costumes are beautifully ornate – check out the red vest, red robe and gold shoes worn by the patron – but she gives Schoonover’s maid a miniskirt, fishnet stockings, and punkish pink hair to shake things up. And Thom Weaver’s lighting comes at first from bright, overhead sources, but at an important point it changes to soft lighting from the side. It’s a subtle switch that shows the care the Arden has invested in this production.
Playwright Hirson revived a centuries-old literary style to strong effect in La Bęte. But director Delpech gets the last word. And she has slyly appended a great final moment – a wordless nod to Buster Keaton, daringly executed by Schoonover. It reinforces the playwright’s point about the contrast between high and low comedy – namely that, if done right, both have their place. And in a play stuffed with a torrent of words, this lovely and funny coda proves that sometimes silence can say just as much as a 30-minute monologue.