A comedic tour de force, one verbobo at a time

True confession: it was originally my intention to write this post in verse and rhyme. It didn't take me too long to realize that I do not possess the talent or ability needed to write in metered verse and make things rhyme for anything longer than a few lines. And yet that is exactly what David Hirson accomplished back in 1991 when he first wrote La Bete (please excuse the blog's tragic inability to accent the e. Believe me, I tried), a hilarious play set in 17th century France now enjoying a revival at the Music Box Theatre and starring the delightful Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, and Joanna Lumley.

The main thrust of the play rests on the conflict between Mr. Hyde Pierce's Elomire (a clever anagram of Moliere, who's style is emulated in this work, btw), a playwright and actor in the service of the Princess (the lovely Ms. Lumley), and Mr. Rylance's Valere, a boorish, crass, and generally disgusting street entertainer who the Princess wants to work with Elomire to develop new material for the rest of Elomire's troupe. Elomire is offended and repulsed by Valere's manners as well as everything Valere stands for - the simple, unintelligent, flashy art that is heavy on the entertainment value but light on the substance. His distaste for Valere is evident from the very beginning of the play, as he speaks with his colleague Bejart (ably acted by Stephen Ouimette) about Valere after witnessing a tableau of his less refined traits at dinner. And then the man himself enters the scene... and proceeds to give a rambling monologue for the next 25 minutes.

I'm not even kidding. Mark Rylance spoke uninterrupted for a solid 25 minutes. It was a stunning display of acting, a true masterclass in comedy as Valere spoke on and on about his life story. He rambled, he roared, he questioned, he answered his own questions, he ate, he expectorated food onto the stage in front of a disgusted Elomire and Bejart. He made up words (verbobos and francescas for words and chairs, respectively) and toyed with language masterfully. At one point, he went into an adjoining room off of the set's main library set and "defecated" into an urn. In fact, he did not stop his tirade until he quite literally shut himself into a trunk (at which point, Mr. Hyde Pierce's Elomire hilariously queried, "Is this a pause?") I have honestly not laughed so much over a piece of theater, much less a half hour of it, in my life. I was in tears. Not only was Mr. Rylance's Valere uproariously boorish and cringe-inducingly inappropriate, but Mr. Hyde Pierce and Mr. Ouimette pulled off the difficult feat of reacting purely with their expressions and body language while still conveying their utter distaste for the man. It was amazing.

The rest of the cast was delightful as well. Ms. Lumley was adorably ridiculous as the pampered Princess who demands that Elomire accept Valere into his troupe and, when Elomire balks at her request, commands Valere to put on one of his "famous" (read: pulled out of Valere's ass) works using the rest of Elomire's troupe. They put on an utterly ridiculous performance of a nonsensical work that Valere makes up as he goes along, and it is highly entertaining. My favorite supporting character, however, is the servant/maid Dorine, who speaks only in words that rhyme and otherwise relies on an exaggerated pantomime to get her point across. For instance, her attempt to tell Elomire that the Princess had arrived by shouting "BLUE!" and gesticulating wildly to indicate bleeding (the phrase was "blue blood") was awesome. Greta Lee's portrayal of Dorine's exuberance and later exasperation with Elomire's inability to understand her was wonderfully conveyed.

Despite its seemingly ridiculous plot and gut-busting humor, which could easily relegate the show to being a farce with lots of laughs but little meaning, La Bete still manages to contemplate serious questions about art. In one of the final scenes of the show, Elomire delivers a passionate defense to the Princess of his troupe and his "serious" plays that are, to him, far superior to anything Valere could ever produce. He argues that pieces of theater, or any art for that matter, that rely on the audience's enjoyment of the crass and vulgar to entertain, are dangerous and do a disservice to art as an entity. Art, he maintains, needs substance and meaning. It must have a purpose that is greater than mere entertainment. It must have a message, a moral, a lesson. Listening to Elomire's words, one cannot help but contemplate the issues he is raising. What do we consider to be art? More importantly, what constitutes good art? Does our current culture value entertainment, even of the most crass nature or in its least challenging form, over art with substance?

Given our culture's propensity for the stupidest reality shows (Jersey Shore or Real Housewives of [Insert location here], anyone?) over more substantial entertainment (such as the delightful and powerful drama Parenthood, which is rumored to be on the verge of cancellation), I can't help but think that Elomire has a point. At the same time, I can't begrudge the joys of simplistic entertainment, even if it is vulgar. I love "that's what she said" jokes just as much as the next person (perhaps even more so), so I admit that I'm not always the most high-minded in what I find funny. But all that aside, what is the audience supposed to think of La Bete itself, which simultaneously relies on the highbrow and lowbrow to provide humor? The dichotomy provides such an interesting dynamic and, if an audience member were so inclined, prompts real thought about just what kind of play La Bete is, and just what message it is attempting to convey. And really, isn't that what art is supposed to do?

Also, Michelle and I are calling this now: Mark Rylance - Tony Award winner for Best Leading Actor in a Play 2011. You heard it here first.

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