Review: La Bête 

by Lynn on March 5, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Until March 16, 2024.

Written by David Hirson

Directed by Dylan Trowbridge

Set by Joe Pagnan

Costumes by Laura Delchiaro

Lighting by Jeff Pybus

Props by JB Nelles

Sound by James Smith

Cast: Katarina Fiallos

Amy Keating

Madelyn Kriese

Richard Lam

Cyrus Lane

Justan Myers

Mike Nadajewski

Amelia Sargisson

Courtenay Stevens

 A revival of the Talk Is Free 2023 production with a few cast changes, that is a deeper, richer but still wild production directed by Dylan Trowbridge with a towering performance by Mike Nadajewski. A cautionary tale of what happens when a rich patron interferes in a theatre company’s programming and casting; and questions what is more important, doing popular fare for easy entertainment or more serious fare, and why does it have to be either or?

The Story. It’s 1654. Languedoc, France. Princess Conti’s estate in Pezenas (changed from Prince Conti, in David Hirson’s text). Elomire is a courtly, erudite creator of theatre. He heads a theatre company that does weighty work. His patron is Princess Conti. For years she has allowed him to produce what he wanted. Then things changed.

Princess Conti saw Valere, a troubadour, a clown, performing in the public market place and was so enthralled by his performance and sway over the people who stopped to watch, that she decreed that Valere would join Elomire’s troupe.

Elomire is incensed. He loathes Valere as a show-off, a bombastic disgrace to theatre, a clown in the worst possible way and totally incapable of working in an ensemble. The Princess is insistent. How will it end?

The Production. Playwright David Hirson wrote La Bête about 33 years ago when he was in his 20s. It’s his first play and it’s huge and impressive. He wrote it in iambic pentameter rhyming couplets which is a wink to Molière, his acting troupe and his penchant for presenting satiric plays that poke fun at the aristocracy and hypocrisy.

One gets a sense of the wit and flavour of David Hirson’s dialogue when Elomire (Cyrus Lane) enters to vent at Bejart (Richard Lam) at the turn of events—that the Princess decrees that Valere must join the company. Elomire has a dinner party for the troupe and invites Valere (Mike Nadajewski) to meet them all. Elomire is aghast as a result at the boorishness of Valere.  As Elomire, Cyrus Lane is elegant, courtly, erudite, furious and pointed in his distaste for Valere. ‘Cockatrice,’ ‘bombastic ninny,’ ‘dull hypocrite’ are some of the choice words he uses to describe Valere. Cyrus Lane plays Elomire with dignity but an obvious contempt. Bejart in turn is calmly played by Richard Lam, who tries to reason with his friend, and help him see the inevitability of the situation. Richard Lam plays Bejart with compassion and concern.

We finally see the focus of their ire. Valere (Mike Nadajewski) explodes onto the scene. It’s almost as if he expects applause for every movement. As beautifully tailored as Bejart and Elomire are in their beautiful costumes (bravo to Laura Delchiaro), Valere is the definition of a “slob”. His costume is tattered, torn, frayed, patched, flamboyant, and sloppy with one ‘sock’ up and one bunched around his ankle. His hair is a tangle of billowing black curls; his beard is scruffy but there is an impish upturn of his moustache. Eye-popping.

 What follows is a speech that goes on for about 35 breathtaking minutes. It’s a speech that riffs on the food, the hospitality, the host, the ‘admiration’ (not) of Valere for Elomire, performing, life, art, prayer, vinaigrette etc. It’s a speech of stream of consciousness of Valere holding court over the stunned and captive Bejart and Elomire. Nadajewski as Valere is impassioned, clear, crisp, athletic, jumping onto and off of furniture, daring, bold and breathtaking in its invention. One fluctuates between being mesmerized by Valere’s energy, bombast, pretention and giddy self-delight, and wanting to hose him down with cold water to shut him up.   In the course of the speech Valere proves, without a doubt that Elomire is right. This fellow will not, could not, fit into an ensemble. David Hirson has written a wild speech of such imagination and humour that he has captured the very essence of this narcissistic, self-absorbed, enthusiastic imp of a man.

This does not mean that we all (including Elomire and Bejart) sit open-mouthed with their attention glued to Valere. Director Dylan Trowbridge is savvier than that. As Trowbridge stages Valere to tear around the stage being outrageous, we are also aware at the stillness and dignity of Elomire and Bejart as they carefully trade telling glances. We are constantly aware of all three characters because of Dylan Trowbridge’s smart direction. Dylan Trowbridge ably guides Nadajewski in the nuances, subtleties and breathless pacing of the speech as well as the whole performance of the play. There is wit, focus, fun poked and truths told in this production.

Valere is fearless to all but the Princess Conti, a commanding Amelia Sargisson. She mixes charm with royal prerogative.  She is the only one to get Valere to shut up. She is wily enough to test whether or not Valere will fit into the company or not by ordering Valere to do his one man play by including the others in the ensemble who will play all the other parts. This of course turns out to be little more than bit parts for them and another reason for Valere to let loose.  

Joe Pagnan establishes the ornate time of France in 1654 with a large rich rug on the floor, and some furniture. A frame in gold wood hangs above the space at an angle. Laura Delchiaro’s beautifully fitted costumes establish that we are in an ostentatious period in France of ribbons, bows, and rich fabric. The Princess’ ornate gown is an example of such opulence.

David Hirson has presented a fascinating argument about theatre that after 33 years since he wrote the play is still vibrant.  What kind of theatre should be done: the populist kind of theatre espoused by Valere, that reveres the mediocre and show-off or the esoteric, intellectual theatre of Elomire, that aims for loftier, intellectual heights? The Princess weighs the arguments of both sides and makes a decision as to the kind of theatre she will fund in future.

It’s interesting that to the Princess there is only one or the other kind of theatre to be funded, not both. It won’t escape many that a mix of both is ideal; the popular funds the less popular fare. I loved that David Hirson gets us to ponder that. He has placed the play in the 1600s but the same thorny issues about theatre still exist today.     

Comment. By bringing its terrific production of La Bête to Toronto, Talk is Free Theatre gives us a glimpse of the kind of theatre they do in Barrie, Ont. as a matter of course.

Talk is Free Theatre Presents:

Runs until March 16, 2024

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes. (1 intermission)

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