One cannot say that American playwright David Hirson avoided challenges when he wrote La Bête, a comedy penned with a nod to the great 17th century French satirist, Molière.
Set in France in the mid 1600s and written in rhyming couplets, the play presents two actors who are diametrically opposite in their approach to art and to life. What they have in common is the need to gain and maintain the favour of Princess Conti (Rachel Jones), who governs the region.
However, wealthy sponsors support only a select few. All other artists must make do as well as possible. This precarious way of life leads to desperate and often wild behaviour as well as surprising relationships, which is what ensues in La Bête.
In Soulpepper’s production, La Bête is Valere (Gregory Prest), a crude street entertainer, whose tendency seems to be to steal centre stage via the force of raw buffoonery. While performing in the town square he encounters Elomire, (Sarah Wilson) the venerated playwright whose theatrical company is comfortably ensconced at Princess Conti’s court. When he discovers with whom he is speaking, Valere launches into a long and disingenuous speech about his adherence to modesty despite his phenomenal talents.
This tidal wave of words, which runs about 30 minutes, is highly demanding of the actor who performs the monologue, the other cast members who must be silently but fully responsive to Valere’s rant and the audience which has been hijacked and is unsure where or when they will touch down. However under Tanja Jacob’s direction and due to Prest’s comedic skills the ride is an awesome experience and the landing is soft.
Valere is the exciting bad boy who delights the princess as he undermines Elomire. Elomire fights back but she is shooting in the dark. She does not clearly see or understand her rival, an animal who is foreign and largely incomprehensible to her.
Wilson’s Elomire is dignified and noble but behind the times. Perhaps due to her comfortable position at court she has forgotten that patrons and audiences continually seek novel experiences. She has become disconnected from the artist’s instinct to explore, experiment and compete. She has forgotten that most patrons enjoy sauce with their meat and also look forward to something sweet. Fun, arousing, thrilling and escapist works draw attention and create wealth.
Jacobs’ decision to cast women in the roles of Elomire and the prince(ss) is brilliant because it underscores how hard won power and status are and how difficult to maintain. Changing the gender of some of the play’s characters also suggests that women may be attracted to the beastly but it is likely that they will be attacked if they attempt to assume this persona.
Does Hirson’s play end with praise for the popular and the “vulgar”? I don’t think this is the playwright’s intention. More likely he is suggesting that vanilla is not the only flavour out there.
I suggest you see Soulpepper’s La Bête. It has all the right ingredients.
La Bête runs until June 22. Tickets and info at soulpepper.ca