Director - Jac Alder
Set Design - David Walsh
Lighting Design - Sam Nance
Costume Design - Bruce R. Coleman
Sound Design - Marco Salinas
Elomire - Jakie Cabe
Valere - Bradley Campbell
Princess Conti - Georgia Clinton
Madeline Bejart - Amber Devlin
Du Parc - Robert Dullnig
Marquise Therese Du Parc - Lynsey Hale
Bejart - Jackie Kemp
Dorine - Jenna Meador
De Brie - David Meglino
Catherine De Brie - Sara Weeks
Reviewed Performance 12/12/2011
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The French have always had a way of making theater a dense, strictly governed exercise in technique. Neoclassical French theater is difficult to read, let alone perform. Moliere is perhaps the greatest exception to this rule, flaunting conventions and exposing the hypocrisy and pretension of the working class. The result is classic comedies like Tartuffe and The Imaginary Invalid that continue to entertain well into the 21st century.
It's no surprise then that David Hirson's La Bete has such a presence in regional theater since its initial Broadway opening. The play starts as a contemporary take on Moliere's witty, clever style and finishes as a commentary on theater, social mores, and artistic integrity. Unfortunately, Theatre
Three's production of La Bete gets caught up in the language and style of the period and misses the true point of the play.
It would be a mistake to ignore the challenge of La Bete's script. Hirson's play is an interesting but often exhausting experience. La Bete, like so much of neoclassical theater, is incredibly dense with language. In addition, the play makes a sharp left turn in the second act, turning a comedy of manners into a grand allegory. The very heavy-handed symbolism and pompous wordplay Hirson rails against through a proxy Moliere is overly present in his script. La Bete is difficult because it wavers between a faithful recreation of the neoclassical style and a strong commentary on the problems of the form.
La Bete also challenges the audience's patience and endurance. Twenty minutes of the first act are an extended monologue by Valere, a pompous playwright invited to court to attempt to revive the energy of a struggling theater company. This monologue does to the audience what is intended for the characters: to frustrate and exhaust to the point of wanting to throttle the stuffy, obnoxious writer. True, the style calls for wit and verbal flourish, but when half the first act is taken up by a single monologue, the audience's attention is going to drift.
Still, this is what Hirson presents the actor with, and Bradley Campbell (Valere) bravely soldiers through the monologue. He tackles it with great diction and flourish but doesn't draw the audience in. There are bad puns and horribly rhymed couplets peppered throughout the monologue, yet Campbell simply breezes through them without a pause. He only gets chuckles from jokes that should get laughs, and sends countless literary allusions straight over the audience's head. Valere's monologue constitutes so much of the opening of the show that it requires an incredible presence to maintain interest. Campbell misses his opportunity to establish his character early, and struggles to pick it up as the show goes along.
That's not to say Campbell's performance is bad. He shows deftness for turning phrases and gallivanting across the stage. His image of Valere lives up to the title ? La Bete is roughly translated as "The Fool". Campbell also has genuinely funny moments onstage: his explanation of why he calls a chair a "Francesca" is delightful. Campbell shows a personal understanding of both his character and the script itself. At times though, he struggles to make them plain to the audience. Campbell seems so caught up in the verbal acrobatics of the play that he doesn't always get the message across. He often rushes jokes and lines, never letting the audience really soak in the absurdity of what he's saying. It's a solid performance but seems to lack the timing and clarity to truly bring the house down.
Jakie Cabe has a more grounded performance as Elomire, a cynical artist and author meant to be a representation of Moliere (his name is even an anagram of the famous French author). Cabe is the saving grace of the opening scene, growling like a dog and attempting to attack his rival playwright as he goes on and on. Cabe is at his best when he does not have to fight through Hirson's lengthy lines as his physical comedy and timing are impeccable. His later speeches however are some of the most compelling in the entire show. Near the end, he expounds on exactly why he believes Valere to be a complete artistic fraud. Cabe masterfully rips his enemy to shreds while exposing his own prejudices for truth and good form. His performance adds to the quality of every other performer, and his presence is always felt onstage.
The second act of La Bete fairs better than the first. A major factor is the arrival of Princess Conti who has kept Elomire and his players in her court. Georgia Clinton is perhaps the most consistent performer in the entire show, maintaining a princess' regal presence throughout her time onstage while participating in the merriment. She laughs and muses one moment then subtly menaces the next. Her true shining moment comes at the end of the play as she dresses down Elomire for his prejudice against the optimism of Valere. Clinton embodies power, grace, and authority as she accepts Valere to the company despite her love for Elomire's own style of theater. The portrayal is the epitome of regality.
The players in Elomire's company are never really established as characters, mostly because Hirson uses them as more of a chorus than distinct personalities. Jackie Kemp (Bejart) has a larger role as the voice of reason to Elomire's fiery temper, but doesn't always match his counterpart's energy. The one shining moment from the supporting cast is Jenna Meador as Dorine, the maid. Dorine is unique in the play due to the fact that an "adolescent phase" forces her to speak only through words that rhyme with "two", "blue", etc. Meador stays true to this character the entire show, taking it on with complete mastery. In one of the few roles without an inordinate amount of lines, Meador is able to shine.
Despite a challenging, sometimes tiring script, the actors give solid performances and manage to keep the show moving. The staging of La Bete however makes it difficult to see and experience many of the performances. An arena setting is a difficult proposition for a neoclassical play which is built around subtlety. Because of the wigs and costumes, portions of the audience are often left guessing as to the expression of the characters onstage. It's an understandable problem given Theatre Three's space, but too often the audience is looking at the back of someone's head instead of their face.
The bigger problem with director Jac Alder's staging is how awkward and chaotic some scenes can be. He consistently makes use of symmetry and florid imagery with his actors. When the actors have a mark to hit, the images created are spectacular. The transitions between those images often feel aimless though. Throughout the opening scene, Valere walks back and forth across the stage without any true purpose or meaningful gesture. Actors often seem to move for the sake of movement so that focus is often split between three or four different stage areas. Sometimes actors begin speaking to the audience without warning. Add to this overlapping dialogue, as in the entrance of Elomire's company, and suddenly chaos reigns onstage. For a show that requires incredible attentiveness, Alder splits the audience's attention in far too many directions. La Bete demands absolute clarity and precision, and the staging of performers is unable to meet that demand.
La Bete's design is firmly rooted in the period, and serves the concept well. David Walsh's set reflects the opulence of the period but a giant staircase in one corner obscures some sightlines. Sam Nance provides an interesting convention in his lighting, blacking out between scenes as the actors remain precisely in their spots. It's a choice that reflects the verisimilitude of the neoclassical style, as each scene begins and ends with an entrance. Bruce R. Coleman's costume design is somewhat insightful, particularly in the contrast between colors of Valere's outfits and the stark black garb of Elomire. The designers restrain themselves, opting to let the audience focus on the actors and the language rather than the show's design.
It's this sense of restraint however that ultimately makes La Bete a difficult watch. The performers are constrained by the sheer volume of lines they have to get through. The staging is bound by a space that isn't conducive to the style of the show. The whole production feels tenuous and rigid, an environment that stifles comedy. At the end of La Bete, Elomire is chastised by the Princess for stifling the beauty of art by insisting on rigid, structured form. Theatre Three commits the same mistake and makes their focus style over substance.
Theatre Three, 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, TX 75201
Plays through January 14th
Thursdays & Sundays at 7:30pm, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sunday matinees at 2:30pm.
Final Week performances are: Wednesday Jan. 11th at 2:00pm;
Thursday, Jan. 12th at 7:30pm; Friday, Jan. 13th at 8:00pm;
and Saturday, Jan. 14th at 2:30 pm & 8:00 pm
Holiday Break: Due to the holidays, there will be no shows from December 19-28. Performances will resume on December 29.
There will be