If you haven’t made it up to New York to see the current production of David Hirson’s La Bete, starring the highly acclaimed Mark Rylance--no matter. You can catch an entertaining and well-executed production of the piece right here in Sarasota at the Asolo Rep.
Who is La Bete (the Beast), you might ask? Well, although I don’t recall anyone calling him that during the course of the play, it seems pretty clear that clown and would-be actor Valere (played here with risk-taking flamboyance and impressive control by Danny Scheie) qualifies for the title, all right. From the moment he makes his entrance (onto a set by Erik Flatmo that’s flanked by huge Pop Art portraits of dueling playwrights Shakespeare and Moliere), he dominates the stage, swiftly launching into a 25-minute monologue that shows us the full gamut of the character’s runaway ego, vulgarity and complete insensibility to the feelings of anyone else around him.
We’ve all known someone at least a bit like Valere at some point, and usually we’d run screaming from the room in short order. But here, thanks to Hirson’s clever dialogue (delivered in Moliere-like rhyming couplets that the actors successfully make sound conversational), and to a virtuoso performance by Scheie (clad in outrageously tacky gold jacket and hot pink sneakers), we can’t take our eyes off him.
Danny Scheie as Valere in the Asolo Rep's La Bete.
Neither can the play’s other main characters, although they’d like to. Valere is supposed to be the newest addition to an acting troupe headed by Elomire (Bryan Torfeh) and Bejart (Douglas Jones) under the patronage of a prince (Jud Williford) who thinks his latest find, the street clown Valere, is the cat’s pajamas. The more sophisticated Elomire can only shudder at the possibility, but given the prince’s insistence, he allows (or rather challenges) Valere to present a short play of his own with other members of the troupe, convinced that the performance will show the prince the error of his choice.
But as we all know, sometimes an audience--and even a distinguished company of actors--actually prefers vulgar comedy to high art. And, if high art gets rather pretentious or dull, why not? The argument between the two is at the heart of La Bete, but it’s not one you need to make a heavy investment in to enjoy the show.
Although Scheie has the flashy central role here, Torfeh and Jones also deliver fine performances. I thought perhaps they should react more strongly to that opening monologue for comedic effect, but director Michael Donald Edwards chose to keep their responses restrained, perhaps to accentuate the difference between them and Valere. The rest of the cast doesn’t have a great deal to do, although each gets a bit to perform during Valere’s “parable” involving chicken eggs, wooden legs and two brothers, one a philosopher, one a juggler--a play within a play that echoes La Bete’s questions about what the public may really want in theater.
La Bete continues in rotating rep through Feb. 20; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.