Playwright David Kirson's "La Bete," this week's offering of the Ghostlight Theatre Festival, had its premier in 1991 and won numerous awards in New York and London, including the New York Newsday/Oppenheimer Award, the Lawrence Olivier Award for Comedy of the Year, six Drama Desk Awards (including Best Play of 1991), and also received five Tony award nominations. It appears to be the sort of play that you either love or hate.
Written in the style of French playwright Moliere, this is a play written in iambic rhymed couplets, containing some absolutely marvelous, if unlikely, rhymes (e.g., "Zanzibar" with "too far.") Its purpose is to examine who dictates the standards of popular culture.
One gets a good feeling about the evening ahead from the moment of entering the Veteran's Memorial Theatre. Scenic designer Robert Frye and lighting designer Greg Wershing have combined to create the estate of Prince Conti, with marble staircases on either side of the stage, a circular tile floor (scrupulously being scrubbed by serving maid Eleanor van Hest), and marble busts on pillars, each one bathed by a special spotlight. The stage curtain has been swept up into a luxurious soft drape and the visual effect of the whole is lovely.
Van Hest is charming as she tiptoes around the stage, tripping over her skirt, and unable to speak, unless she can rhyme with the word "blue."
As the play begins, two members of the court's acting troupe, the leader Elomire (an anagram of "Moliere") and his second in command Bejart are complaining that, by royal decree, they will be forced to accept what they feel is a bad actor (Valere) as part of the troupe because he has written a ridiculous play which the Prince wants the troupe to perform.
( "Naught could induce me, save a Holy Writ,
To share the stage with that dull hypocrite!" says Elomire.)
Valere is bright, clever, egotistical and hopelessly self-centered. His entrance in Act I is followed by a rhymed monologue which must go on for 20 minutes.
("God bless the critics, in no uncertain terms.
They have the apple, showing us our worms.")
Isaac Woofter gives an inspired performance in the role of Valere. He swoops, he minces, he postures and he appears oblivious to the disapproval of his fellow actors. He leaves little for Elomire (Joe Sheehey) and Bejart (Adam Sartain) to do but watch and seethe, while he chews the scenery. Listening to Woofter's Valere, we get a feel for his style of low brow humor, and we see the disapproval of Elomire and Bejart and their dedication to more high-brow art.
In Act 2, we meet the rest of the players--Madeline, sister to Bejart (Amy Takeuchi), DeBrie (Sam Tanng), Catherine, his wife (Jessica Kitchens), Rene DePare (Ryan Williams) Marquise-Terese, his wife (Dana Snyder).
The Prince (Jason Oler) arrives, apparently excited about the addition of Valere to the troupe. He describes him as an "idiot savant" (to which Elomire replies "I half agree.").
Valere is allowed to perform his play, "The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz" -- a play that charts the triumph of banality and bad taste over genuine wit and philosophy. Elomire is, not surprisingly, horrified.
Sheehey's Elomire shines in Act 2 as he rails against the corruption of an art he takes very seriously.
However, when the performing group is asked to choose between the high standards of Elomire and vulgar antics of Valere, the group goes for the cheap laughs and Valere has won.
Director Tom Burmester brings out strong performances from his cast, and has woven a tight knit production which moves at a fast pace, allowing for maximum enjoyment of the playwright's delicious use of language.
The lavish period costumes of Costume Designer Roxanne Femling create the feel of a 17th century French from head (with marvelous curled wigs) to toe (high heeled buckled shoes). The entire look is a visual delight.
La Bete may not be for younger audiences, as its humor may be a bit too sophisticated to hold their attention, but those who appreciate the humor of language will find this a very enjoyable evening.