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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

La Bęte
Arden Theatre Company

Also see Tim's review of The Body Lautrec and Nightmares in Neverland


Scott Greer
Photo by Mark Garvin.

David Hirson’s La Bęte is a play that’s determined to dazzle viewers with its brilliance, and, in the Arden Theatre’s stylish new production, it certainly does that. It’s an intricately clever play and a splendid showcase for one of the city’s finest actors, Scott Greer. While it’s less than perfect – sometimes going too far to appear clever, sometimes falling short of its own high standards – it’s a play that can’t help but impress you with its seemingly boundless proficiency and for its exploration of what comedy, and art, are all about.

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.


Amanda Schoonover and Ian Merrill Peakes
Photo by Mark Garvin.

La Bęte is set in the era of the great French dramatist Moliere, and it’s influenced by Moliere’s satires of French society; in fact, several character names in Hirson’s play are similar to names in Moliere’s Tartuffe. (Elomire’s name is an anagram of “Moliere,” which might give you an indication of the type of word games Hirson engages in.) And like Moliere, Hirson has written his play in rhyming iambic pentameter. It’s Hirson’s masterful use of language that’s most impressive about La Bęte. The play’s highlight is a monologue for Valere in act one that lasts well over 30 minutes, in which Hirson’s ingenuity and Greer’s energy never lag. It’s a startling and highly enjoyable achievement, and La Bęte is worth seeing just so you can marvel in Greer’s accomplishment.

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.


La Bęte runs through October 12, 2014 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $36-$50 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122Call: 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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