When a play, in advance of its performance, is known to have a bravura 25-minute comic soliloquy in its first act, that sets up the kind of pressures and expectations that must precede a coronation or a papal visit. What and who can live up to them?
Stages Theatre Center’s production of that much-anticipated Molieresque spoof called “La Bete” does not stand or fall on expectation, but expectation plays a role. This moralistic comedy, written in rhymed couplets no less, promises considerably more than it delivers--a problem built into playwright David Hirson’s script and not exclusive to the Stages production that opened Tuesday at the outdoor John Anson Ford Amphitheatre.
Hirson’s idea is clever: To create a comic burlesque in mock 17th-Century style that speaks to contemporary issues through the transparency of its disguise.
Accordingly, “La Bete” comes with a stand-in for Moliere, one Elomire (a Moliere anagram), who heads an acting troupe that has courtly patronage--in this case that of a prince named Conti (Tony Maggio). Hirson’s tongue-in-cheek satire gleefully confers Moliere’s wife’s maiden name on Elomire’s second in command, Bejart (Don Boughton).
As Bejart tells it to Elomire, Conti has been won over by the performances of a street clown named Valere (Tony Abatemarco) and wants Elomire to make Valere a member of his troupe.
Elomire (Arye Gross) is in shock. To him Valere is a vulgarian. A self-inflated, self-promoting nincompoop. Hirson devotes Act I to Elomire’s repudiation of Valere, to Bejart’s suggestions of moderation, and to Valere’s monstrous confirmation of Elomire’s worst fears. In an orgy of self-aggrandizement Valere unleashes a verbal effluvium as rambling, wanton and unstoppable as the Mississippi River floods of the summer of ’93.
Act II interrupts this scene with the arrival of the Prince. Gears shift and the gamesmanship escalates. The contest becomes one of wits, words and values as the persuasive Prince points out that something in the antics of Valere’s clownishness might benefit Elomire. And he’s not wrong.
This is where “La Bete” becomes interesting. The Prince plays mind games with his subjects, as Valere is made to bow and scrape and Elomire’s attempts to embarrass Valere misfire. Rampant populism, in the end, is not without its share of talent and overtakes Elomire’s rigidity.
And that’s Hirson’s central and only question--a question he addresses as much to the end of the 20th Century as to any other: At what point does lack of compromise sink the ship? Where does popular slip into mediocre ? And how does one keep that beast, that bete --mediocrity--at bay?
Hirson’s conceit is too garrulous to be as dramatic as it might be, not only because the couplets lend a certain artificiality to the piece, but also because its arguments tend to be repeated too many times. Circular discourse--between Bejart and Elomire, Elomire and Valere, Valere and Valere, Valere and the Prince, the Prince and Elomire--ultimately flatten the message by delivering it once too often.
This has a mildly bludgeoning effect that director Paul Verdier has not found a way to soften, although his “La Bete” grows much more enjoyable in the second half. Part of the reason for that lies in the structure, which is more interactive, and in the debate that at last challenges us to think.
The other reasons lie with the Tonys in the production: Tony Abatemarco’s unease with Valere in the first act and Tony Maggio’s chilling Prince Conti in the second.
An otherwise seasoned and versatile actor, Abatemarco is overwhelmed by the demands of his opening soliloquy. His discomfort with the verbal and slapstick demands of the panegyric translates as fussiness. Quite the reverse is needed. An absolute absence of self-awareness must accompany a paean to one’s genius, no matter how appalling the encomium. Things are infinitely better in Act II, when Abatemarco can share the stage more fully with others, at which point his Valere blossoms, even acquiring a kind of grace.
But the surprise is Maggio, whose Prince deploys a mix of cunning, candor and precision. He spars to win, never doubting the advantage of his ranking. It is a performance of subtle, quiet, cruel force.
The balance of the company is far less sure of the stylistic territory, which matters in a play so heavily dependent it. The tendency is to play things one way, or overdo, which denotes confusion rather than choice. Gross, for instance, is unremittingly furious as Elomire and Boughton doggedly uncommitted as Bejart. The result is monochromatic portraits.
Production values are satisfactory, although more visual reference to contemporary connections might have served to remind us that they are there and to leaven what is ultimately a serious but labored staging of a wildly imaginative but flawed play.
* “La Bete,” John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Tuesday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 12. $18-$20; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Arye Gross: Elomire
Don Boughton: Bejart, his second in command
Sheelagh Cullen: Madeleine Bejart, Bejart’s sister
Clay Wilcox: De Brie
Darcy Marta: Catherine de Brie, his wife
John Achorn: Rene du Parc
Shanti Karn: Marquise-Therese du Parc, his wife
Tony Abatemarco: Valere, a troubadour
Tony Maggio: Prince Conti, patron of the troupe
Barbara Tarbuck: Dorine, a serving maid
Jason Jacobs, Hank Rogerson: Servants
A Summer Nights at the Ford presentation of a Stages Theatre Center production. Producer Sonia Lloveras. Assistant producer Vanessa Barros de Sousa. Director Paul Verdier. Playwright David Hirson. Sets Jim Sweeters. Lights Ken Booth. Costumes Michele Lamy. Music Ned Judy. Stage manager Sindy Slater.