Review of "La Bête" in SesayArts Magazine

Photo by Dahlia Katz

“I much prefer to any drooling fan / A critic who will SLICE me into parts! / God love the critics! / Bless their picky hearts!” So proclaims the actor-playwright Valere, the titular “beast” or idiot of David Hirston’s La Bête, which has been energetically remounted by Barrie’s Talk is Free Theatre in a production directed by Dylan Trowbridge now playing at Harbourfront Centre.

La Bête is a dramatic dissertation on the subject of high art versus vulgar commercialism, and the value of cultural sponsorship – topics which are as relevant today (possibly moreso, as actor Richard Lam discusses in a SesayArts featured interview) than they were in the mid-17th century, when the play is set.

Personally, I don’t style myself a “drooling fan”. Nor would I say that I have a critic’s “picky heart”. I think of myself as deeply curious, with broad interests and an open mind. This may explain my delight in how this production threads a difficult needle to achieve an effect that is both crowd-pleasing – in its dynamic, physical, accessible approach to the play’s humour – and critic-pleasing – in its exceptional performances and the seriousness with which it engages the play’s weighty subject matter.

The plot is easily summarized. A princess is the patron of an acting troupe led by the distinguished actor-playwright Elomire (an anagram for “Moliere”). The princess (played in a multi-layered performance by Amelia Sargisson) is holding a banquet at her estate. She brings Elomire (an intense, self-righteous, fast-talking Cyrus Lane) together with popular actor-playwright Valere (Mike Nadajewski) because she hopes that Elomire will invite Valere to join the troupe. Like the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup advertisement, she wants to inject some of Valere’s lower, more popular and crowd-pleasing chocolate into Elomire’s stuffier, less accessible peanut butter art . . .  so they can realize that they have “two great tastes that taste great together.”

Suffice it to say that things do not go according to plan. Within five minutes of the play’s opening, we find ourselves in unique theatrical territory when the buffoonish Valere launches into an infamous 30+ minute monologue. In it, he delivers progressively more elaborate encomiums on his own brilliance . . . and disproves each instantly, through tortuous logic, absurdity and self-satisfaction.

Nadajewski is a magnetic, relentless and hilarious force of nature whose performance crosses kinetic, bug-eyed camp with vaudevillian farce. He preens, prances, pratfalls . . . even piddles. He minces, mugs and muses. He coins new and idiosyncratic (and, he believes, better) words like “francesca” to replace serviceable, universally understandable terms like “chair”. And with the arch eyebrows and conspiratorial tone of a popular performer, he clowns endlessly for the imagined-yet-real crowd surrounding the stage. It is impossible to tear your eyes and ears off him as he prowls the stage hurling half-baked clunkers, then retracting, reconsidering or trying to remember and write them down.

His tour-de-force performance is both brilliant entertainment and necessary sleight-of-hand disguising the fact the soliloquy reduces to stage furniture both Lane’s intense black-clad Elomire and his assistant Béjart (a consummately businesslike Richard Lam). After the soliloquy, Lane and Lam have much more to do – including Elomire’s vociferous, even vicious rebuttal of Valere. And then in the play’s second act, Valere’s play “The Two Boys of Cadiz” takes centre stage. It is staged for the Princess as a test: either it will prove Elomire’s certainty that Valere is an idiot . . . or it will prove the value of Valere’s art and his worthiness to stay. Here, the rest of the company –  Madelyn Kriese, Courtenay Stevens, Amy Keating, Justan Myers and Katarina Fiallos – step up wonderfully to amplify Nadjewski’s madness by bringing the excesses and inanities of Valere’s play to life.    

If you don’t know the ending of La Bête, I won’t spoil it. But as someone styling himself neither a fan nor a critic, I freely admit my uncertainty about the outcome of the play’s central debate, which can be styled as Elomire vs Valere, art vs commercialism, essential meaning vs ephemerality, or universal language vs eccentric coinage.

In our post-truth world of performative outrage and language hijacking, these questions feel more important than ever. So I find myself fretting when I start asking which of the two stars is the true “idiot” of the play’s title. Is it Valere, whose art is as unstable and debased as his language . . . and yet is endlessly diverting, hilarious and ultimately sympathetic? Or is it the staid and mean-spirited Elomire, whose art has the painful integrity of a hairshirt?  

Or could it even be the Princess, who shows deep conviction and confidence, but whose deep-pocketed patronage is responsible for both Valere and Elomire – not to mention this sidesplitting attempt to make a peanut butter-cup confectionary of their duelling ethe [sic]?

Talk is Free Theatre’s La Bête is a crowd-pleasing, riotously funny romp which leans – with a heavy hand and yet a light touch – into such weighty, timely questions about the value of art and language and the possibility of meaning.

In the production, a large tilted picture frame hangs over the stage. It frames the action from above . . . and looks like it might fall at any moment and shatter to pieces. The frame reminds us of the precarity and volatility of the play’s central questions. And when the play ends and that frame has held, the pressure of these questions shifts squarely from the performers to the audience. Whether you’re a drooling fan, a picky critic, or – like me – something in between, the answers are up to you.

This is great theatre. These are urgent questions. Go see it – find your answers.

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