Friday, October 22, 2010

La Bête

At the end of David Hirson's La Bête you might find yourself wondering, Is Mark Rylance human? He rarely stops talking -- in verse -- for the entire hour and 45 minutes. It’s exhausting just listening to him as the babbling, spitting, farting buffoon Valere in this revival of the 1991 satire that is supposed to represent a collision of 17th century arts and populism.

Rylance’s performance is really the only reason to see this show, at the Music Box Theatre through Feb. 13. He is sure to receive a Tony nomination and may likely win again; he won in 2008 for Boeing Boeing, another revival with some funny moments surrounded by tedious silliness. David Hyde Pierce (right in photo) also is funny as Elomire, the straight man foil to Valere’s manic persona, but his part is dwarfed by Rylance’s.

The “plot” begins to unfold more than half way into the play -- up until then we have listening to the narcissistic Valere, a street clown, ramble on and on through his opinions on everything and nothing. The conflict of values happens after The Princess (Joanna Lumley, in photo) grows tired of Elomire's royal theatre troupe and proposes the two square off to determine who wins the favor of the court. If you have any doubt as to who will be the victor in a battle of culture against tasteless entertainment you have only to consider the winner in today’s world. As H.L. Mencken once said: No one ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public. Standards apparently weren’t any higher in 17th century France.

Mark Thompson’s set is as strange as the play -- floor to ceiling books on three sides, representing Elomire’s study in 1654 France. (Thompson also did the costumes, which are appropriate period pieces.)

I was chatting with several fellow Back Stage alums after the show and we all agreed La Bête, directed by Matthew Warchus with a script revised from the 1991 original, is a really weird play. If it was supposed to prompt a discussion of high versus low culture it missed the mark with all of us. After such an ear load, we were a bit numbed and all just agreed we need a bit of both.

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