BWW Review: Comedy and High Art Clash in Soulpepper's LA BÊTE

BWW Review: Comedy and High Art Clash in Soulpepper's LA BÊTE

What happens when a street performer is thrown into a court theatre troupe? In Soulpepper's production of the 1991 David Hirson play, LA BÊTE, the result includes a lot of body humour, monologuing, and deeper-than-expected political commentary.

The show, directed by Tanja Jacobs, pits the egotistical goofball Valere (Gregory Prest) against a traditional, serious Elomire (Sarah Wilson) who wants him out of the troupe. Unfortunately for Elomire, Princess Conti (Rachel Jones) sees talent in Valere and argues he should stay - all of which leads to a hilarious, raunchy play-within-a-play in the second act.

As "the beast" that the play is named for, Prest plays Valere like a mulleted, Shakespearean Jack Black. His opening monologue - over twenty minutes long - cements him as the unaware fool, which both Wilson and Bejart (Oliver Dennis) play off of wonderfully. As the stricter Elomire, traditionally played by a male actor, Wilson seems to completely disappear into the role with great emotive and physical choices. Countering Elomire, Valere seems to exist on his own plane of existence, one where nonsensical rambling is a sign of genius. However, beneath all his bravado and self-praise there's a sense that Valere might actually have some anxieties about his art.

Although she doesn't arrive until act two, as the troupe's patron and princess, Jones plays the friendly fan until she has to become the authoritative royal - at which point she completely commands the stage. Bejart, the second-in-command in the troupe, doesn't get many chances to speak in the play but Dennis plays him with great comedic timing nonetheless. He also delivers a brief, if not heartbreaking moment at the end of the show that beautifully pushes the final lines to a new level.

Being set in 1600s France allows for extravagant costuming (Shannon Lea Doyle) for the entire cast, not counting the slobby Valere. Princess Conti's gown is especially striking, and Valere's costume for his impromptu performance of one of his own plays is probably the most eye-catching piece to grace the stage in the two-hour show.

Marketed as a "modern comedy of classical insanity," LA BÊTE certainly hits all those points and some. With some of the jokes relying heavily on juvenile humour - like the soundboard of fart noises peppered throughout the show - the use of rhyming iambic pentameter allows for some interesting setups and punchlines - the funniest of which come from characters breaking, although briefly, into more modern speech styles.

What seems like a comedy at first evolves into a political debate about power and morals. The differing opinions of the characters about what high art should be has the audience questioning who's right throughout, and even up to the final monologue, there isn't a clear answer provided. With an open ending where both Valere and Elomire must live with their choices, the thoughts expressing what fools being in control could lead to was especially striking. In its original context it would have been just as well, but with the final lines delivered by a female-played Elomire they take on a whole new meaning - especially given the political climate in North America today.

LA BÊTE is a great comedic experiment resulting in a topical revelation that seems even more relevant today than it might have been when it was written. Although the first act is enjoyable, it requires sitting through a lot of dialogue - and some of the jokes go for the low-hanging fruit, leading to some raunchy moments. The show's conflict is an extremely interesting one, though, and leaves audiences questioning their own morals long after they've left the theatre.


Soulpepper's LA BÊTE runs through June 22, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Distillery Historic District, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/la-bete/5640

(main photo credit: Rachel Jones and Gregory Prest. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann. )

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From This Author Isabella Perrone

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