La Bête by David Hirson. Arden Theatre, 2014
The opening line of La Bête is “I shall not tolerate another word.” This is spoken by Elomire, playwright and leading actor in a theatrical company, rejecting all discussion of adding a new player to his troupe. (Elomire’s name is an anagram for Moliere, and La Bête — French for “the beast” — is set in the great French satirist’s 17th-century time and style.)
It’s the entrenched against the new, the traditional against the innovative. Seriousness threatened by shallowness, high art threatened by low art.
We in the audience side with Elomire because he sounds reasonable and because he’s played so well by the appealing Ian Merrill Peakes. The aesthetic Elomire despises Valere, the “gross,” “ill-mannered,” and “self-adoring” newcomer who “strikes poses.”
This boorish novice (played by Scott Greer) is a bull in Elomire’s china shop, vulgar and egotistical. In his figure and his costuming, Greer’s Valere conjures the boisterous, happy Falstaff of the first part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Valere praises his own ability to coin words and compose epigrams. He describes himself as “precocious.” With mock humility, Valere says it’s “absurd” that people call him a genius; then, a moment later, he congratulates himself on coining a phrase that’s “very close to genius, don’t you think?”
David Hirson’s script endows Valere with appealingly populist attributes. He cares more about “the lower classes” than scholars educated at the Sorbonne. He values “the Babel of the masses.” The script also, and unwisely, depicts Valere with gross personal manners. Greer goes too far when he picks his nose, but his performance is a tour de force of comic shtick that should be seen in person.
Hirson’s highly innovative script is written in rhymed couplets, and many of the rhymes occur in the middle of sentences, at delightfully irregular intervals. Hirson also composed an astoundingly long monologue for Valere at his entrance, where he speaks uninterrupted for close to a half hour with free-association run-ons that conjure memories of Robin Williams.
For much of the play, Elomire is made to seem like the good guy and Valere the almost-idiotic troublemaker. But the Prince (the majestic Dito van Reigersberg), the acting company’s patron, tips off the play’s ultimate direction. Elomire, the Prince suggests, has become stagnant; the input of a fresh personality will reinvigorate his company and create more daring theater.
Taste and talent, the prince argues, aren’t limited to the formally educated. “Perhaps the milkman loves Etruscan art,” he points out. “The barber may know Ptolemy by heart.”
Playwright Hirson seems to endorse this point at the play’s end. But his script creates an imbalance, devoid of any strong debate about the merits of tradition versus deviation. Instead of arguing the case for tradition, Elomire merely repeats his personal distaste for Valere. By the end of the play, Elomire has become a tedious scold.
On an obvious level, La Bête argues the case for giving pop culture a place in the arts; at a deeper level, it asks whether mediocrity is overtaking seriousness. Greer’s cheerful portrayal of an essentially anarchic character fails to suggest the potential danger the Valeres of the world pose to serious art.
Michael Nyman’s background music borrowed extensively from the 17th-century composer Henry Purcell. Emmanuelle Delpech’s direction stressed the buffoonish and missed an opportunity to heighten the serious conflict.
To sum up, this intriguing play in the manner of Moliere tries to pit tradition against innovation but bogs down in personal conflicts. Still, Scott Greer’s tour de force performance is worth the ticket price alone.
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