Stage Door Review 2023

La Bête

Tuesday, February 7, 2023


by David Hirson, directed by Dylan Trowbridge

Talk Is Free Theatre, Five Points Theatre, Barrie

February 3-11, 2023;

Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto

March 1-17, 2024

Elomire: “It’s dangerous to be governed by a fool”

Talk Is Free Theatre has made Barrie one of the go-to small towns in Ontario to see exciting theatre. TIFT is currently preparing for the upcoming tour of its Sweeney Todd to Buenos Aires. How many regional theatres are taking their work on international tours? Those interested in what this ever-surprising company is up to should head over to the Five Points Theatre in Barrie to see TIFT’s revival of David Hirson 1991 play La Bête. It’s a tour-de-force of a play with a fantastic performance by Mike Nadajewski as the title character.

La Bête is one of those unusual plays that comes out of nowhere and is the only play to keep the creator’s name alive. It’s rather like Mary Chase’s Harvey (1944) or Meredith Willson’s The Music Man (1957). La Bête is especially unusual in that Hirson, an American, has set it in France in 1654 and written it in rhyming iambic pentameter couplets. Some English Restoration playwrights wrote in that form, but the only plays revived from that period are all in prose. English-speaking audiences are most familiar with Hirson’s form from verse translations of Molière where the rhyming couplets attempt to imitate the alexandrines of the original French. Richard Wilbur’s verse translations of Molière are the most successful, but others like Ranjit Bolt, Martin Crimp and David Ives have also had a go.

In 1654 Pierre Corneille (1606-84) was the greatest French playwright. Molière (1622-73) and Jean Racine (1639-1699) had yet to write their breakthrough works – L’École des femmes (1662) for the former, Andromaque (1667) for the latter. For this reason Corneille is the only playwright referred to in Hirson’s text.

The plot concerns Elomire, the head of a royal theatrical troupe sponsored by the Princesse Conti (“Prince” in the original). He is complaining to Bejart, second in command of the troupe, of the Princess’s plan to force the company to accept an actor she has just discovered. This actor, whom the Princess saw first as a street performer, is Valere, a man whom Elomire considers a fool and an insufferable egomaniac. Bejart gives Elomire a writ that the Princess has already given him declaring that either Elomire accept Valere into his troupe or she will dissolve the troupe.

We then meet Valere, who is, perhaps, the most extravagantly self-involved, self-dramatizing character ever put on stage. After Valere delivers an extraordinarily long monologue about himself, Elomire is convinced that such a walking one-man-show could never be part of an ensemble like his troupe.

To resolve this matter it is decided that Valere will stage his play The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz using Elomire’s troupe. If the Princess judges it a success, Valere will stay, if not he will go.

When Hirson’s play first appeared in 1991 it seemed like a perfect document of post-modernism. It was a modern play deliberately written in period style that discussed modern topics about art – a playful play about art reflecting art. It is that kind of play, but in 2023 it seems that it is about a lot more than self-reflexive playfulness.

Though the play is fictional, it makes several oblique historical allusions that give some clue how Hirson views the action. As early as 1670 Molière was satirized under the name Elomire (an anagram for “Molière”) in Elomire hypocondre; ou, Les Médecins vengés by Le Boulanger de Chalussay, a play written during the so-called “Comic War” of 1663 when rival Parisian playwrights were seeking to discredit Molière, who looked likely to be come the leading comic playwright in Paris. This notion is reinforced when we recall that Molière’s partner in setting up the company Illustre Théâtre was Madeleine Béjart. The Prince Conti is likely Armand de Bourbon, Prince de Conti (1629-66), who was a student with Molière at Clermont and became a patron of his acting troupe. However, in a treatise published 1667 after he joined the Church, he turned on his former friend and accused Molière of atheism and wrote, “La Comédie d’elle-mesme, & par sa nature ne peut estre que pernicieuse & nuisible” . The Prince died in Pézenas in Languedoc, where Hirson has set the action.

When I first saw the play in 1993 at Canadian Stage directed by Bob Baker the play seemed to be just a romp with Baker adding as much physical comedy as possible to the role of Valere to make the show funnier. I missed Soulpepper’s revival of the play in 2018 directed by Tanja Jacob, but I wonder if the revival was motivated by the same contemporary parallels I note below in the TIFT production. In the TIFT production director Dylan Trowbridge gets the tone exactly right and realizes that, like many of Molière’s greatest comedies, La Bête is really a tragedy in disguise. Molière’s Harpagon in The Miser (1668) ends in isolation, his Alceste in The Misanthrope (1666) goes into exile and his Dom Juan (1665) ends in hell. Valere’s triumph in La Bête means Elomire’s defeat. It is the triumph of the baseness over high-mindedness, money over ideals, idiocy over intellect.

Line after line of Elomire’s scathing critique of Valere’s play echoes more loudly today than it would have done in 1991. Hirson may have written the play when US President #41 was in power, after President #45 these lines take on a prophetic meaning: “It’s dangerous to be governed by a fool, / But worse when fools bemoan the sad decline / Of standards which their efforts undermine!” It’s also amazing to hear a speech which seems to bemoan the dominance of social media before it had achieved its present status when Elomire exclaims: “It shows that what you really do or say / Is less important than the commentary!  / Good art – good deeds – become ... unnecessary”. And in viewing the perilous state of the world in general now as it tilts toward the right, Elomire’s words ring solemnly, “For fools contain inside of them a beast, / That triumphs when the world is made a fool!”

Trowbridge seems to recognize that there is a darker side to Hirson’s comedy. He follows the dictum of Robin Phillips that no character in a comedy thinks their actions are funny. Even Valere’s outrageous behaviour is justified because the character himself is outrageous. In Hirson’s Introduction to the printed version of the play, he writes,“It must be played with exuberance and, particularly in the case of Valere, an abandon that is both thrilling and dangerous”. This combination of the “thrilling and dangerous” is exactly what Trowbridge draws from Mike Nadajewski in what is so far his greatest performance. Anyone who saw Nadajewski as Mr. Applegate (i.e., Satan) in the musical Damn Yankees at the Shaw Festival last year will know how effortlessly Nadajewski can combine comedy with villainy.

Valere is no villain but what he represents is a desecration of everything civilized. Costume designer Laura Delchiaro garbs Valere first in a dirty, patched outfit which looks as if it has been lived in for several years. Even Valere’s second outfit is dirty in more ways than one in that it features an outsized codpiece of which Valere is quite proud. Trowbridge has Valere wash his bare buttocks and comb his hair with the same brush. During the same speech, Valere urinates and later vomits semi-offstage, afterwards wiping his hands on the stage curtain.

But the grossness of his behaviour simply reflects the abject boorishness of his of his world-view. Hirson has written Valere a 15-page-long speech that Valere directs toward Elomire and Bejart, without letting them get a word in edgewise. Valere expresses his boundless self-adulation, then apologizes for it only to praise himself for being so self-aware. This moves him to apologize again which only leads to more self-adulation and an endless repetition of this circle until Valere realizes that the only way to stop his logorrhea is to gag himself.

Nadajewski gives a virtuoso performance of this speech and, indeed, of the character of Valere by making him comically disgusting and never endearing. Nadajewski gives a sinister edge to Valere’s failure to allow Elomire and Bejart to speak. Nadajewski makes us sense that Valere’s endless flow of words is not merely madness but a tactic in silencing opponents, a tactic that he uses more than once later on. Nadajewski thus lets us see quite clearly the danger of allowing such an egomaniacal, compulsive liar any power. (Contemporary bells should be ringing.) If you thought that Nadajewski was extraordinarily good at comedy before, this role allows him to go way beyond anything he has previously done, and the minute detail he gives Valere’s grotesquerie is as funny as it is cringe-making. Perhaps the best example of this is Nadajewski’s Valere elaborate mime of plucking out his own eyes. It’s both horrible and hilarious at once.

The role of Valere is by far the longest part in the play, but that is because that one character sums up in himself everything that is wrong with the world. Elomire is, in fact, the hero but Hirson makes us wonder how a good man who believes in ideals and the betterment of humankind will triumph over an intellectual midget who views himself a giant. Rylan Wilkie initially complicates our view of Elomire by making him seem fussy and prejudiced against Valere before we ever meet Valere. Of course, the longer Valere speaks in his massive opening speech, the more we see that Elomire is right to hate him. Yet, Wilkie lends such nobility of thought and righteous anger to his responses to Valere that we come to see that Elomire is no hidebound reactionary but rather a man to fears for the future of humanity if such an obvious fool as Valere is lionized.

Josue Labouncane’s Bejart initially functions as a calming influence on Elomire’s anger and wants Elomire to deal with the fact that Valere accession to the troupe has been made a fait acompli by the Princess’s writ. Laboucane shows us that Bejart is as outraged as Elomire is at Valere’s behaviour but Bejart is just as fearful that Elomire’s fury at the fool is self-destructive and will put him and Bejart out of work. Labouncane fully conveys Bejart’s regret at the end in having to choose between Elomire and Valere.

Amelia Sargisson plays the Princess Conti as nearly as mad as Valere. We wonder how she cannot see through him. She does see an elemental power in Valere which Elomire is lacking but she doesn’t seem to recognize that that power is bestial (to refer to the play’s title) rather than human. Sargisson shows us that the Princess is dangerous in her own way, by turns rational and irrational, but always conscious of her power. This awareness means that any contest set up between Elomire and Valere will be won by whatever she decides. And Sargisson never makes the Princess’s haughtiness look appealing.

In other roles, Katarina Fiallos lends the comically monosyllabic Dorine an urgency that makes us accept her as a serious character. The play’s final beautiful fade-out, courtesy of Jeff Pybus’s gorgeous lighting, of Dorine’s tear-stained face lends the action an unexpected pathos. What is means is enigmatic – Has the world sunk further into decay? Is Elomire too high-minded? – but we end the play feeling that major shift, and not for the better, has just occurred.

Heeyun Park, Justan Myers, Amy Keating, Courtenay Stevens and Madelyn Kriese make up Elomire’s acting company, a troupe that at first appears far too proper to allow anyone as disruptive as Valere in their midst. Yet, their group actions, well choreographed by Monica Dottor already lead us to believe that they will vote en masse when the choice comes down to Valere or Elomire, especially when fear of unemployment looks.

Joe Pagnan’s elegant set places the audience around three sides of the stage. A huge royal blue velvet curtain with gold fringe separates the back of the set from the thrust. Over the thrust Pagnan has hung an enormous gilt frame set at an angle that at once conveys the point that this is a play about art but also that this is a play about how art can be skewed.

This second aspect of the frame emphasizes the chill in Hirson’s play, however comic the action may appear. Today it seems that country after country is discovering the truth of Elomire’s line, “It’s dangerous to be governed by a fool”, and yet how can such danger be overcome when people are so easily taken in and good men flee? It’s exciting to see how a play from one period can gain relevance in another. It’s an experience we should have, but seldom do, at Ontario’s two major theatre festivals. At least we have a place like Barrie and a company like Talk Is Free Theatre to show us how it can happen. True theatre-lovers owe themselves a trip to Talk Is Free Theatre as soon as possible.

*For the Toronto run Cyrus Lane plays Elomire and Richard Lam plays Bejart.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Josue Laboucane as Bejart, Mike Nadajewski as Valere and Rylan Wilkie as Elomire; Mike Nadajewski as Valere; Amelia Sargisson as the Princess and Mike Nadajewski as Valere; Katarina Fiallos (centre as Dorine with Justan Myers, Amy Keating, Heeyun Park, Madelyn Kriese and Courtenay Stevens as the acting company. © 2023 Scott Cooper.

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