Friday, January 7, 2011

“La Bête"

As George Carlin once said, every comedian has the same message: “Dig me.” The same applies to every comic playwright. David Hirson, for example. His comedy, “La Bête,” is a long exercise in showing off. Fine with me—if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Hirson’s got it. The whole thing’s done in rhymed couplets — and that’s just for starters.

The Asolo Rep is currently showing off Hirson’s brainy brainchild in a smart production directed by Michael Edwards.

The plot? In a nutshell, it’s a war of wits (or a war of a wit and a half-wit) in 17th-century France. Elomire (Bryan Torfeh), a playwright with standards, goes toe-to-toe with Valere (Danny Scheie), a crowd-pleasing street jester who’s a hack with no standards. For some reason, the Prince can’t get enough of the guy — and wants to shoehorn him into Elomire’s theater troupe. Kinda hard for Elomire to say no — because the Prince is bankrolling the whole operation. And you know, he’s got that whole Prince thing going for him.

We hear about the new jerk before we see him. Elmoire bitches about “the Beast” to his buddy Bejart (Douglas Jones). Bejart agrees that the guy is a jerk — but doesn’t want to piss off the patron. Elomire (an anagram for Moliere) screws his courage up, ready to throw his artistic life away rather than compromise his high standards.

Then the Beast himself bursts on stage—and into a 25-minute machinegun monologue. The theme: “Dig me.” But he ain’t got nothing to dig. He’s full of himself. But he’s an idiot and a bore. Hirson cleverly makes the boredom interesting – and Scheie puts in a killer performance. Act I is some of the best comic theater I’ve ever seen.

In Act II, the Prince (Jud Williford) makes the scene. Like Hamlet before him, Elomire stages a play as a mousetrap for his enemy. The troupe performs one of Valere's beastly plays — which turns out to be a vile exercise in special pleading about the sacrifice of a Christlike suffering artist with an implied insult to the king, the prince and the honor of France. It’s fart-in-your-face low farce with a bullshit high-minded message. The mousetrap backfires. The prince commends Valere’s fearless integrity; the troupe thinks the audience will eat this material up; Elmoire resigns. Another Christlike, suffering artist.

Good stuff. But after the high of the first act, it’s a letdown. To entertain us, Hirson is forced to make his bore interesting. This makes his Moliere stand-in seem preachy and boring. The point is made that good art is good and bad art is bad. Using Elomire as a mouthpiece, Hirson cleverly explains why — but it’s academic, anti-dramatic and anti-comic. The playwright is smart — he plays the games James Joyce once played. But he makes a few mistakes.

The play is an argument — but Hirson undercuts his argument by making his bore the most interesting character in the play. Valere's entertaining; Elmoire isn't. Why shouldn't Elomire collaborate?

The play’s a war of wits – but the enemies never really go to war. Valere and Elomire talk at each other — but never to each other. There’s no sparring, no direct confrontation. That’s what I wanted. Or a surprise. Elomire says, “To hell with it. Give the people what they want” and sells out. He doesn’t. But Elomire doesn’t show us what makes him great either. Elomire never says “Dig me.” He sacrifices himself for art. But one Jesus is enough.

If there’s a beast out there, you need to fight it.

Downer ending aside, the play’s a lot of fun. Great directing by Michael Edwards. Great acting all around – and Scheie puts in a gut-busting, once-in-a-lifetime performance. Dig me?

He’s got a right to say it.

La Bête
Through Feb. 20
An Asolo Rep production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Nitpicky analysis:

Another surprise ending. Valere, like some 17th-century Andy Kauffman, says, "Let's cut the crap. This 'Beast' is just a character I created. You're the only one who didn't buy it. I bow to you, monsieur." -- and then bows to Elomire.

Speaking of Joyce -- he had the same problem in Ulysees. Buck Mulligan was supposed to be the ultimate goat-like Philistine. But he was funny. As Burgess once said, you were always glad to see him show up after hanging out with that nattering prig, Stephen Dedalus.

I agree with Hirson's definition of bad art.

No comments: