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Lucy Komisar

"La Bête" is a devastating satire about the domination of low culture

Mark Rylance as Valere, Joanna Lumley as Princess and David Hyde Pierce as Elomire. Photo by Joan Marcus.

"La Bête," written by David Hirson; directed by Matthew Warchus.
Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, New York City.
Opened Oct 14, 2010; closes Jan 9, 2011.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar Oct 21, 2010.

The corruption of culture is the theme of this searing and wildly funny satire written by David Hirson in 1991 and, alas, ever more appropriate today.

Mark Rylance is dazzling in the role of Valere, a gross, foppish, foolish street performer who threatens the high art of the theater troop directed by Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), a stand-in for Molière, who was a court playwright. It is 1654 in France, and The Princess (the fine Joanna Lumley), the patron of Elomire’s company, insists that he take on Valere, whom she decides is brilliant.

Valere would agree with her. In an astonishing 25-minute monologue--done in the play’s iambic pentameter--Rylance is a babbling, prancing, pompous, boorish fool smitten with his own eloquence. He speaks with his mouth full and spits out food. He belches or expels gas. (La Bête means the beast.)

Mark Rylance as Valere and David Hyde Pierce as Elomire. Photo by Joan Marcus.

His toothy, idiot grin feeds Elomire’s growing fury and disbelief at the outrageous verbal outpouring of self-aggrandizement that threatens never to stop.

It all takes place in Elmire’s study, which represents high culture as books line the floor to high-ceilinged walls. (Valere will use one as toilet paper.) Every once in a while, the suave, erudite Elomire throws a dart such as "your brain is like some prehistoric fossil." But Valere ignores insults or takes them as compliments.

Joanna Lumley as the princess, and cast of players. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The Princess arrives in a windy shower of gold stars, her wavy red tresses falling over a white jeweled gown. Valere means to call her Regina, but crudely misspeaks. When she describes Valere as an idiot savant, Elomire remarks, "That’s partly true." She insists that the company put on Valere’s play, which is predictably dreadful. She threatens to withdraw her support if Elomire refuses. Lumley perfectly display the royal certitude in her own views and contempt for everyone else’s.

The excellent Pierce exudes a mixture gloom and exasperation. His Elomire declaims, "We punish virtue. We can’t tell truth and travesty apart."

David Hyde Pierce as Elomire. Photo by Joan Marcus.

What does a true artist do when confronted with loutish art financed by the people in power? What will his troop do? Elomire declares, "The only way I know is to resist yielding to fools" to "reclaim honest discourse fools have undermined."

It’s what Molière did. He was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church for his attack on religious hypocrisy, but he didn’t yield. Not true, Hirson suggests, for people who make theater today.

Director Matthew Warchus has created a fast-paced, farcical romp that is miles above high camp. With a troop of very talented actors – Rylance, Pierce and Lumley heading a cast that includes Stephen Ouimette as Bejart, Elomire’s associate, and the company players – the production is a memorable evening of the best that theater offers. It warns what could happen to our culture. Or is already happening.

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