BALLSY LA BÊTE
lA bête by David Hirson (Soulpepper). ñ At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House). Runs to June 22. $32-$96. 416-866-8666. See Continuing, this page. Rating: nnnn
When David Hirson wrote this homage to classic French comedy back in 1991, he couldn’t have known that in 2018 the U.S. would be held captive by a vain, boorish beast who had basically conned a nation into making him president.
But it’s hard not to think of Trump while watching Tanja Jacobs’s sharp production of this comedy, especially when a character says, “Our lives are governed by so many foolish men.”
Since the speaker is a woman, and Soulpepper is mounting this revival in the wake of the abuse allegations against their former artistic director, you can extrapolate a few other things from that damning statement, too.
In 1654 Languedoc, crude street-performer Valere (Gregory Prest), having charmed the Princess Conti (Rachel Jones ), has been asked to join her court’s resident theatre company.
That doesn’t sit well with the highminded house playwright Elomire (Sarah Wilson), whose name is an anagram for that era’s best-known dramatist, or senior actor Bejart (Oliver Dennis). In the long first act, while Valere delivers his preening, obsequious and flatulent (in more ways than one) exclamations in a justly famous 30-minute monologue, the pair’s fallen faces express more than any words could say.
Hirson’s play is quite an accomplishment, not least because it’s written entirely in rhyming couplets. The first act ends in what is essentially a rap battle between Valere and Elomire, and the second act is largely taken up with a farcical recreation of an eyerolling show.
Some of the laughs, especially in the second act when the court’s extended theatrical troupe, who include Raquel Duffy, Paolo Santalucia and Michaela Washburn, tramps onstage, feel forced.
But the bittersweet conclusion takes the play in a fascinating direction, and the central performers handle the language and the comic capering with great skill. The fact that Jacobs has cast Jones and Wilson in roles usually played by men adds another edge to this production.
Prest, best known as a dramatic actor, is a revelation as the title character, nimble not just vocally but also physically (he’s helped by the unflattering makeup and ridiculous rags by designer Shannon Lea Doyle).
The backdrops to Ken MacKenzie’s elegant set suggest that all the world’s indeed a stage, and John Gzowski’s sound design has some nice touches, especially the out-of-tune harpsichord introductions that indicate something very wrong, but probably funny, is about to go down.
Gregory Prest (right) lights up the stage as La Bête.