Feast of Fools
Review by Ellen Anthony, Broadway Magazine
No one will ever forget,
The first half hour of “La Bête.”
David Hirson’s 1990 play “La Bête” is a rare rhyming and intellectually innovative work. A contemporary play inspired by the works of Moliere, it is a resized post-modern version of a seventeenth-century comedy of manners (but minus a love plot, be warned). The play is both innovative and classic. The premise is this: Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), the theatrical director of the court troupe is forced by his Royal patron, the Princess (Joanna Lumley) to add Valere (Mark Rylance), a vulgar street clown, to his company. To say that Valere is grotesque would be to put it kindly —he is a self-infatuated, self-inflated, self-promoting low comedian who joyfully and artfully insults his learned hosts on everything from their choice of food to their taste in art. By the second half of the play, he is asked to stage for the Princess his own work using Elomire’s players in an effort to determine if he and Valere can go forward as collaborators.
The beginning of the play is the funniest: Rylance, in his opening monologue, which contains several disgusting acts—I wont spoil them for you—is at his best giving us a smooth talking, brilliantly conceived rogue who obliviously spits and farts his way through what feels like an entire act. Language, art, fashion, books, food, no subject is omitted, and by the end we are well acquainted with the views of a man we would rather not know. It is hilarious.
The second half of the story is more serious. Valere puts on his play within the play, and we see, as he performs in front of a large, red velvet sign on which he has crudely scratched the word TRUTH, how artificial he really is; with no real coherent vision, or learning, or even talent, he stumbles through his comedy. But the Princess, determined to find new forms, sees meaning in its freshness, even if it is nonsense, and ultimately forces Elomire to choose: learn to collaborate, or lose your position at court.
The ultimate problem with the play is the ending. Hirson’s Valere can hardly be taken as a credible champion for a populist theatre (let alone anything else), as he himself is an insufferable snob in beggar’s clothes, and Elomire’s purist notions about art are delivered by David Hyde Pierce’s Elomire who is acted as a kind of Frasieresque prig. Frankly, by the end, I did not want to attend a play penned or acted by either character and we are left wondering why the Princess doesn’t throw them both out. Is there really no other option?
Ultimately, the play ends up being a kind of state of the union address on theatre and takes a slightly too didactic tone. Still, Mark Rylance delivers an incredible performance together with Joanna Lumley, who is also quite good. As the patron-in-chief, she plays a demanding self-centered audience member who doesn’t know what she wants, but she wants something different. Stamping her foot and exclaiming something along the lines of, “My point of view is the only one that matters,” we are reminded of the twentieth-century problem that theatre is now a commercial art.
Flaws aside, Hirson’s play is an incredibly funny and creative work that artfully (in verse no less) recycles the most memorable characters of the Sun King’s court for a modern audience: Valere is a beautiful marriage of Tartuffe and Trissotin, hilariously reenacting the most obnoxious manners of the seventeenth-century French stage. Directed by Matthew Warchus and designed by Mark Thompson, this is a beautifully produced production that injects a healthy dose of inventiveness and ingenuity into the current Broadway theatre season.