The world’s worst dinner guest is currently in residence at the Music Box Theatre, where an inspired revival of La Bete is in performances. Starring a maniac Mark Rylance and apparently infallible David Hyde Pierce, this production of David Hirson’s play is a thoroughly entertaining romp sure to bring a smile to the most somber of audience members.
First performed in 1991, La Bete was unsuccessful, running for only 25 performances before it closed. A commentary on the state of theater written in verse, it was considered outdated and unappealing. But this revival, complete with lush period costumes and a classically beautiful set, is not only appealing – it is also extremely relevant. A story of high art’s morals clashing with comedic populist appeal, La Bete pits Emoliere (inspired by famed playwright Moliere) against Valere, a street clown. Commissioned by the Princess (Joanna Lumley), Emoliere is forced to welcome Valere into his troupe of actors. Appalled by the crass buffoon, Emoliere is forced to choose between compromising his morals and maintaining a life of comfort and stability or remaining true to his ideals and leaving his home.
Played by Pierce, Emoliere is a dignified, stately and slightly aloof man and an excellent straight man to Valere’s antics. Pierce’s sculpted, highly expressive face depicts shock, disgust and despair without saying a word – a valuable asset in this show, given that the first time Valere enters the stage, he speaks for about 20 minutes without pausing.
Rylance’s performance as Valere is a tour-de-force brimming with skill and humor as well as depth and complexity. The role of Valere offers a great amount for actors to work with, and Rylance takes it deeper than expected, not only delivering laughs but also piquing the audience’s interest in the character, causing them to wonder about the man behind the antics. Rylance is an extremely physical actor, prancing around the stage in dirty clothes, his shaggy hair waving about him. The first of his lengthy monologues is mainly about being him and his precocious childhood, as well as his fondness for “verbobos” (his own word for words). He frequently states that he wants to know about Emoliere and Bejart (an excellent Stephen Ouimette) but he never pauses long enough for them to respond. His frantic dialogue and the authentic vulnerability he displays when presenting one of his shows for the Princess hint at an insecurity that lurks beneath the flippant bravado, rendering him a truly intriguing man.
Rylance’s Valere is given so many opportunities to reveal himself on stage, it seems that Elomire doesn’t really get a fair shake in the play. He is the straight man to Valere’s antics, and he is the opposition to the Princess’ insistence that Valere join the troupe, but the reason behind his opposition is never explained. And Pierce is an actor of such wonderful depths that one wishes he was given more of a chance to explain himself.
The actual flaws with the production instead lie within the script. Elomire’s maid insists on speaking in rhyming monosyllabic statements, a gag that never makes sense other than to offer another commentary on the state of language. And the ending, bittersweet as it may be, is overwrought.
Whatever flaws may exist, the relevance of La Bete cannot be denied. Elomire’s pleads to retain the purity of the entertainment are especially poignant in the age of Fox News, Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell and Jersey Shore. One wishes he was still available for commentary today.