NY1 Theater Review: "La Bete"
"La Bete," a 1991 comedy set in 17th century France that explores the nature of art -- all in rhyming couplets -- is now on Broadway. NY1's Roma Torre filed the following review.
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“La Bete” is French for "beast" and "fool," both of which you’ll find in David Hirson’s remarkably ambitious play. You might also discover a bit of genius there as well. "La Bete" is a virtuosic collaboration that falls just short of the classic it aspires to be.
Hirson, an American, modeled his play after a 17th century Moliere comedy complete with rhyming couplets no less. The centerpiece of the production is Valere, a buffoon who fancies himself a stage artist. To say he's a vulgar non-talent would be a compliment compared to the obnoxious beast that chews up the stage. Mark Rylance, one of the finest actors alive, delivers a tour de force performance spewing what is very likely the most dazzlingly outrageous, tasteless and grotesque monologue ever seen on a Broadway stage -- and he does it for well over a half hour -- topping himself by the minute. That alone is worth the ticket price.
Hirson attempts to match Moliere’s eloquence while putting his own stamp on this astonishingly clever work and he does succeed to a point. But he also over-writes and despite the plays many virtues it could stand to be trimmed by some 15 or 20 minutes.
"La Bete" tells the story of a royal acting troupe that’s received a decree from its patron, the Princess, to collaborate with the clownish Valere. The company’s manager, Elomire, a principled artist, refuses and must suffer the consequences.
David Hyde Pierce is most impressive in the role of the high-minded leader. It's a far less showy part but he delivers with the skill of a seasoned Shakespearean. And Joanna Lumley as the impetuous Princess shines beautifully as well.
Director Matthew Warchus has clearly raised the bar on this production maintaining a pristine period gloss and sensibility. He makes the most of Mark Thompson‘s grandiose library setting, rising it seems, almost as high as the talents on that stage.
There’s a message in "La Bete" pertaining to the corruption of art in a populist culture and it certainly resonates today. But even more resonant is the mastery of craft on such vivid display.