BALLSY LA BÊTE

NOW Magazine - - STAGE - GLENN SUMI

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.

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