02 January 2011

La Bête

I spent an enjoyable evening the other night at a performance of David Hirson’s La Bête. Set in a 17th-century French court and written in iambic pentameter, La Bête is the tale of two playwrights—the dignified and priggish Elomire and the bombastic and buffoonish Valere—whose futures are controlled by the Princess whose patronize they both seek. Elomire, who is ensconced comfortably at court, is horrified when the Princess insists that the street performer Valere, whom she finds entertaining, join Elomire and his troupe. The ensuing arguments lead to victory for one and banishment for the other.

The three leads are marvelous in their roles. As the Princess, the striking Joanna Lumley mixes a regal composure with childish stubbornness. And her entrance, heralded by a cloud of gold glitter, is absolutely fabulous. David Hyde Pierce, so perfect at projecting silent burning rage, delivers Elomire’s words eloquently but is at his funniest when expressing a wealth of emotions without uttering a word. Yet as good as these two are, it is Mark Rylance as Valere who steals the show. He enters at the beginning of the play, a wreck with foppish hat and oversized teeth, spitting out words and food (in Elomire’s face) and doesn’t stop talking for a good half hour. During his monologue he prances, belches, shouts, confesses childhood secrets, mispronounces Latin, and even defecates while never seeming to stop for a breath. It’s a standout performance and one that can’t help but overshadow the other characters. It’s also one of the funniest performances I’ve seen on stage in a long time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the play never seems to live up to that opening monologue. The age-old argument about high versus low art seems one-sided and the dramatic exit into the mist by one of the leads at the end seems overly dramatic. Nonetheless, the excellence of the performances, especially Rylance’s antics, are worth seeing.

Like most plays that opened this fall on Broadway, La Bête is closing soon (January 9). Until then you can catch it at the Music Box Theatre.

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