Review of "La Bête" in Intermission Magazine

Photo by Dahlia Katz

In a theatrical ecology saturated with solo shows, a 30-minute monologue shouldn’t be particularly impressive.

Tell that to Mike Nadajewski, who’s offering the performance of a lifetime (yes, it’s a cliché, but no, it’s not an exaggeration) in Talk Is Free Theatre’s La Bête, now playing at Harbourfront Centre.

Near the top of David Hirson’s riotously funny comedy about 17th-century France, Nadajewski acts for his very life, spewing endless rhyming couplets at a dumbfounded Elomire (totally not an anagram for Molière, and played with smarmy gravitas by the ever-wonderful Cyrus Lane) and Bejart (a delightful Richard Lam). The half-hour monologue barely feels five minutes — it’s staggeringly well-performed, and directed by Dylan Trowbridge without ego. Nadajewski’s bumbling task-work and spot-on diction feel completely lived-in and authentic; the line between director and actor is razor-thin, signalling excellent work from both Nadajewski and Trowbridge.

Just who is this delusional braggart prancing about the stage, alternating between pissing on curtains and disgusting himself with the very thought of vinaigrette? The question hangs in the air as Nadajewski circles Lane and Lam like a vulture, luxuriating in the humour of the script with disarming magnetism. It turns out this nincompoop is Valere, Elomire’s mortal enemy and a perennial pest in the world of French theatre. He’s talentless and charmless, cries Elomire, a playwright himself. But Valere’s the shoo-in winner of any popularity contest — he may be chaotic, but he’s whip-smart, quick on his feet, and capable of winning over a room in seconds.

Hirson’s play, peppered with allusions to Molière, offers a quirky, sardonic look at the French playwright. For instance, Dorine, a maid, played here by a spunky Katarina Fiallos, borrows her name from the ingenue of Tartuffe (Hirson’s Dorine also speaks solely in monosyllabic words that rhyme with “two,” and thanks to Fiallos’ lovely performance, the bit never grows old).

But Hirson also uses Valere’s rise to cultural power as an allegory for the dangers of showmanship in the leaders we support. La Bête predates Trumpian politics by several decades — Hirson wrote it in 1991 — and yet the commentary is spot-on. It’s hard not to feel for poor Elomire when his troupe of actors (portrayed by a fabulous ensemble) claims Valere as their idol. All that’s missing is a handful of red hats.

Joe Pagnan’s set is simple yet effective, really just a few chairs (or as Valere calls them, “Francescas”), and elegant velvet curtains to line a back platform, as well as a crooked picture frame suspended from the ceiling by wire. The furnished world of the play offers the cast (well, Nadajewski) plenty of room to to play with, and in a play that demands such physical agility from its lead, such sparseness pays off. Laura Delchiaro’s charming costume design, too, suggests the aristocracy of this world without mimicking its stiffness — the frilly outfits are both beautiful and functional.

Talk Is Free Theatre never fails to nudge the boundaries of theatre, injecting a refined sense of playfulness into the work it produces. Where else in this town are you going to catch an immersive Sweeney Todd, or buy a ticket to a show that literally takes you across the ocean? La Bête is yet another success for the company, bringing phenomenal talent to a frequently bizarre play that could fall apart or become repetitive in the wrong hands. Two-and-a-half hours of rhyming couplets never felt so cool.

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