Beastliness: “La Bête” Gives Broadway Another Try

Mark Rylance as Valere gives beastliness a good name.

About a decade ago I reviewed David Hirson’s play Wrong Mountain at ACT, a poison-pen letter to the theatre as popular art. Throughout the play, Hirson sneered at the notion of connecting with an audience, and I grew more and more enraged as I watched it. Why was Hirson even writing plays if he detested audiences so?

Wrong Mountain did make me curious about Hirson’s first production, La Bête, as Wrong Mountain seemed to be a response to the earlier play’s reception. Produced on Broadway in 1991, it was savaged by Frank Rich in the New York Times, spawning an open letter of protest by several notables of theater, including Katherine Hepburn. The play closed after 25 performances but went on to become a success in London.

Almost twenty years later, the play is being revived on Broadway in a new production directed by the brilliant Matthew Warchus, responsible for the recent hits The Norman Conquests and God of Carnage. He brings along a spectacular cast, especially the stupendous Mark Rylance as the title character, Valere, a successful provincial clown performer who has captured the imagination of the Princess (Joanna Lumley, successfully cast in a role that was originally for a male), who wants to add him to the acting troupe she patronizes. The troupe is led by Elomire (David Hyde Pierce), a high-minded intellectual. La Bête is set in 1654 France, and is written in rhymed iambic pentameter couplets à la Molière. (Elomire is of course an anagram for Molière.)

Although Rich was certainly right about the plays shortcomings, he appears to have underestimated its successes, which may be partly due to the role of Valere apparently being beyond the skills of its 1991 player, Tom McGowan.

There is no such problem with Rylance, who brings some unholy combination of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, Martin Short’s Ed Grimley from Saturday Night Live, and Shakespearean clown to the role, and he’s astounding. The role contains a 25-minute monologue (again, in rhymed couplets!) where Valere drunkenly pontificates, expounds, farts, spits, and belches, and exhibits the most deluded self-love ever seen on stage. His immediate audience for this display is Elomire and his lead actor Bejart (Stephen Ouimette). No one does outraged dignity better than David Hyde Pierce, and the succession of slow burns, shocked gasps, and unfeigned horror at the bombastic vulgarities of Valere are virtuosic, exquisitely timed, and hilarious. Ouimette, too, is terrific as he alternates between shock at Valere and preventing Elomire from doing bodily harm to the Princess’s new favorite. Lumley gets a fantastic entrance courtesy of Warchus, as a gale of glitter blows in from offstage, and she’s great at regal hauteur.

The contemporary verse plays I’ve seen (not that many, thank god) have been disasters, and for the first hour or so, I thought La Bête would be an exception. Hirson’s verse is natural and unfussy, often approaching the ease and wit of Richard Wilbur’s famed translations of Molière. In the midst of Valere’s monologue, he’s taken with an epigram he’s just crafted, but as he’s searching for pen and paper to record the (rather witless) witticism, he forgets what he just said and screams: “COME BACK! COME BACK, YOU TANTALIZING GEM!/YOU TEASE! YOU BITCH! YOU FICKLE APOTHEGM!/ I GAVE YOU LIFE AND NOW YOU FLY FROM ME!!/ This happens with annoying frequency.”

The problem with the play is the second act (Warchus presents both acts without intermission), where, once again, Hirson gets preachy about theater, basically excoriating the audience for enjoying the first act. At the command of the Princess (and the sly suggestion of Elomire), Valere is forced to present one of his performances employing the actors in Elomire’s troupe as a test of whether the merger of their two talents will prove fruitful. What follows is a slapdash Brechtian skit entitled “The Parable of Two Boys from Cadiz.” The presentation isn’t especially entertaining on any level, and its moral, as the Princess puts it, is that “…mediocrity is bound to thrive,/ while excellence must struggle to survive.” Elomire, in his turn, derides Valere and his play as representing the mediocrity they pretend to oppose. Elomire’s speechifying offends the Princess who forces him to resign from his own troupe. Hirson thinks he’s presenting both sides of the argument, but Elomire is utterly defeated, a martyr to excellence, while Valere is triumphant, and it’s clear where Hirson stands. It’s much better to perform to an empty theater and maintain your principles than it is to engage with middlebrow tastes and intellects. Hirson is effectively flipping the bird to his own audience.

Hirson’s obvious skill and intellect appear to be at war with his chosen profession of playwright, and it once again begs the question: Why is he writing plays? Luckily, Warchus, Rylance, Pierce, Ouimette, and Lumley have no such animosities, and you’re left admiring the brilliant performances and Hirson’s talents, doing your best to overlook his hostile analysis of contemporary theater and audiences.

Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) and Bejart (Stephen Ouimette) contemplate the horror that is Valere.

La Bête plays until January 9, 2011 at the Music Box Theater in New York. For more information, go to www.labetetheplay.com.

Advertisements

It’s Scapin’s world… or is It?

Bill Irwin as Scapin confers with Jud Williford as Sylvestre in ACT's "Scapin." (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Molière’s late farce, Les fourberies de Scapin (The Schemes of Scapin), takes about 45 minutes to read and seems to have taken Molière even less time to write.  Here’s the plot: Two young men, Octave and Leander, have fallen in love with women their fathers will likely disdain.  Leander’s servant, Scapin, enlists the help of Sylvestre, servant to Octave, to trick the miserly patriarchs out of sums of money and into accepting their sons’ romances.  Complications ensue.  Le Misanthrope it ain’t.

Nevertheless, the great clown and actor Bill Irwin adapted (with playwright Mark O’Donnell) this lesser work several years ago, as Scapin, directing and playing the title role in both Seattle and on Broadway.  He brings a new production to the American Conservatory Theatre, employing members of their core company and MFA program in his ensemble.

I’ve seen Irwin on stage several times, twice doing Beckett, and I’m convinced he’s the country’s finest Beckett interpreter.  His 2001 ACT production Texts for Nothing was brilliant, audacious, and incredibly moving.  (I still remember him struggling to find a comfortable place to sleep on the rocky, hostile setting, shifting and turning in an attempt to find rest in a landscape that offered none, rendering the abstractness of Beckett’s words extraordinarily concrete.) His 2009 Broadway performance as Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane’s Estragon, remains the best production of Waiting for Godot I’ve seen. Fool Moon, a clowning collaboration with David Shiner, was a sweet example of how audience participation should be done, with respect and without humiliation.  And in his conventional performances, as in the Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married, he brings a well-observed humanity to his work. The man is a marvel.

However, Irwin’s clowning skills, wondrous as they are, can lead to self-indulgence.  His Broadway performance in last year’s Bye Bye Birdie was a disaster.  Irwin focused on the clowning and threw character out the window, resulting in a mannered, overwrought mess.  His vocal choices were so affected that he incomprehensibly garbled the first word of his one song.  (The word?  “Kids!”)

His Scapin falls short of the sublime, unfortunately.  There’s much that’s hilarious: the adaptation is free and has no problems making fun of the limitations of the original script; the cast ad libs with abandon; there are anachronistic references to gay marriage, terrorism, and other current events that are often quite funny; and the scenes are peppered with lots of sure-fire theater in-jokes.  (When Scapin is carried on stage, apparently near death, he asks, “Am I center?” He isn’t, and has to be hauled back stage left.)  There are comic Brechtian touches, such as a sign bearing the word “Exposition” extending out of a stage left window when one character gets a little too involved with his back story.

As co-author, director, and lead actor, the piece should be all Irwin’s, and there are times when he’s amazing.  His voice tosses off one-liners, shouting in alarm, mocking and cajoling. The plasticity of his limbs and spine can be astonishing, but he too often seems to be showing off, walking around in cringing postures, scrunching or pulling his face, his feet roaming off in different directions, the movements divorced from both the plot and his characterization.  He stops the show (not in a good way) for these displays of shtick, taking far too long for his entrances and exits. (The play, only an hour and 45 minutes as is, could easily stand to lose another 15-20 minutes.)

Irwin and O’Donnell add two plot elements not in the original, although one, a love interest for Scapin, is borrowed from another Molière work, La Comtesse d’Escarbagnas.  Omozé Idehenre portrays Nerine with great aplomb, intermittently lugging trunks over the stage that no one offers to help her with.  When Scapin become tongue-tied in her presence, he observes, “Molière did not write this part, did he?” and Nerine replies with a stern dignity, “It is among the parts he did not write.”

The other addition is far less successful. For some reason, Irwin and O’Donnell include a chase scene in the finale without any textual or dramatic reason. Scapin simply decides to bolt.  It goes on and on as everyone trots around the stage at the same tempo with no real urgency.  It’s neither fast enough nor funny enough, another lapse in judgment that ought to have been cut.

The show does feature one spectacular performance, one seamless integration of acting and clowning that never devolves into self-indulgence, that hits the right tone throughout.  Jud Williford as Sylvestre has a beefy body and long face with a prominent chin and forehead, and he ‘s the best second banana ever. Williford is relentlessly inventive without ever breaking character or overshadowing the text, the production, or his fellow actors.  Eager to help and easily flattered, his Sylvestre looks on with energetic interest, his mouth usually open as if all this idiocy was brand new to him. He possesses a sweet, winning bashfulness.  When Scapin tries to sweet talk him into helping with a scheme, he asks, “Do you have a theater arts background?” (a damn funny line all on its own), and Sylvestre replies with an embarrassed pleasure, “Well, I did a little acting back in servitude school.” In another scene, he channels bits of Taxi Driver (Williford molding his rubbery face into a passable DeNiro), Midnight Cowboy, and Dirty Dancing, and at the end of this tour de force, he looks to Scapin for affirmation that he’s done well.  In another sequence, Scapin pretends to be clairvoyant to Octave, relating Octave’s own story to him while Sylvestre mimes and charades the details behind Octave’s back.  It’s the evening’s high point: Irwin’s timing is perfect and Williford’s imagination knows no bounds.

Gregory Wallace as Octave tries out several things in his depiction, with little consistency and less success.  When describing his first meeting with his beloved Hyacinth (Ashley Wickett), he goes gay, describing the dress she wore and cooing over how adorable it was.  But since Octave isn’t gay, the moment makes no sense.  His voice is deep and tough-sounding at first (almost Brooklynesque in its accent) but this too goes by the wayside. At other moments, he just seems to be standing on stage, making no attempts at acting at all.  (Beaver Bauer’s costuming, otherwise fun and appropriate, fails here as well.  Octave wears huge thigh-high boots with a flare at the top, and an epauletted jacket with huge shoulders that comes down just above the hips, leaving his mid-section, garbed in tight, striped trousers, exposed and vulnerable.  If Wallace were to use this somehow, to make some choices consistent with his costume, it could be funny.  But as it is, he looks rather embarrassed.)

As Leander, Patrick Lane is better simply because he understands there isn’t much to the part.  He’s the young swain immersed in love and unconscious to the rest of the world unless it threatens to interfere.  Thankfully, René Augesen plays his paramour, Zerbinette with a worldly mirth that energizes the entire stage. Zerbinette takes her pleasure where she can, laughing at fools and delighted to find there’s such a large supply.  Despite the ridiculousness of her own name, she revels in getting Hyacinth’s wrong, hurling out whatever H-word comes to mind, including  “Hydrangea” and “Hyperbole.” Insisting that Leander marry her if he wants to continue the affair, she announces “Surprise! I’m a virgin!” and gets a huge laugh.  Steven Anthony Jones and Geoff Hoyle (a fellow Pickle Family Circus alum along with Irwin) are also both quite funny as the hapless heads of family.

But Williford is Scapin’s ultimate winner. He shines without overshadowing and triumphs without conquering.  He’s a supporting and supportive actor, the very best kind.  With his easy masculinity, he’s also, despite all the foolery, slightly sexy.  It’s a shame he wasn’t provided with his own love interest.

Irwin’s name is all over the marquee, and he’s an undeniable talent, but by evening‘s end, the show is Williford’s.

Zerbinette (Rene Augesen) listens as Geronte (Geoff Hoyle) pontificates. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Scapin plays from now until October 23 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street,
 San Francisco, CA, 94102.  For more information, call 415-749-2228 or visit http://www.act-sf.org.