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The play brims with witty repartee and is excellent performances.

Cylla von Tiedemann

  • Writer: David Hirson
  • Director: Tanja Jacobs
  • Company: Soulpepper
  • Cast: Gregory Prest, Sarah Wilson, Oliver Dennis, Rachel Jones, Fiona Sauder, Ghazal Azarbad, Raquel Duffy, Paolo Santalucia, James Smith, Michaela Washburn

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If there were just two kinds of theatres in the city – those dedicated to producing “high art” and those happy to fill seats with slapstick antics and dirty jokes – there’s little doubt that Soulpepper would identify with the first category. And yet the company’s production of David Hirson’s La Bête, which opened in Toronto on Tuesday night, has the vulgar camp win an intensely funny victory. Or is it more of a rapturous compromise?

La Bête is set in 17th-century France and pits the venerable court playwright Elomire, an anagram for Moliere (Sarah Wilson), against the boorish Valere (Gregory Prest), a travelling performer whose salacious, one-man plays include Death by Cheese and The Fork that Spanked the Spoon. The Princess Conti (Rachel Jones) has grown tired of the sober earnestness in Elomire’s work and, having seen Valere in action in the public square, wants to commission one of his plays for the royal theatre. She issues a writ, ordering a collaboration between the two artists.

What follows is a dynamic theatrical argument between the merits of high and low culture. In aesthetic terms, we are very much in the world of comedy; the pacing is unerringly taut, the characters instantly recognizable, the physicality often lewd and always larger than life. But if we engage with the binary that the play asks us to, nothing here can be written off as dumbed down or plebeian.

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The first reason is the writing. The play is a coup in style, written entirely in rhymed verse. It’s the sort of gimmick that might hamper a less verbally dexterous playwright but allows Hirson to show off his acrobatic range. Valere’s long, self-aggrandizing monologue in Act One is a thing to witness – he brags of professional success and sexual glory while offending every notion of logic, grammar and taste. The highlight might be his bizarre neologisms – he claims that real words are sometimes beneath him, paling against his colourful imagination. It’s the sort of narcissism that brings to mind a certain presidential “covfefe.”

The second reason for the production’s sophistication is the performances. As Valere, Prest is a force to be reckoned with; he is crude, loud, bawdy and hilarious from start to finish. He’s matched by Wilson, whose onstage presence I always find remarkably intense. She’s both commanding and luminous as the righteous artist who refuses to back down on her principles. Director Tanja Jacobs’s decision to cast a woman as Elomire is one of many powerful choices she makes – when Valere calls Elomire “darling,” it has both personal and political sting.

Another fine directorial sleight of hand is the magic Jacobs brings to Valere’s play within a play in Act Two. She uses the simple tools that a street performer could access – there’s a sequence in silhouette, projected onto a sheet – to show how modest and elemental great entertainment can be. She’s helped by clever costumes designed by Shannon Lea Doyle, and Ken MacKenzie’s elegant set, complete with a raked stage, parquet floors and trio of baroque chandeliers, one which dangles over the audience.

Critical reception of La Bête could merit an article of its own. When the play opened on Broadway in 1991, it closed after 25 performances and was accused of promoting the kind of dumbed-down theatre it purports to condemn. The following year, it opened in London’s West End and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. In 2010, it was received more warmly on Broadway, though New York Times’ critic Ben Brantley thought Elomire failed to make the winning argument, letting the fool take all the glory. Others thought Brantley missed Hirson’s whole point: The play is meant to satirize snobs and celebrate the messiness and honesty of popular entertainment.

Soulpepper’s production of La Bête is among the first notable ones in the age of Trump, a time when Elomire’s warning about “pretension over truth” and that “hot air has a tendency to rise” has particularly sensitive implications. Because of the meta nature of the whole enterprise, it’s hard not to speculate that La Bête was intended to be the sort of glorious compromise between high and low art that the princess wants in her theatre. But I can’t help but feel that there’s a false dichotomy at play; the profane is given full mileage here, while the sacred gets short shrift. If there’s a compromise, it’s not even.

Hirson’s play brims with witty repartee, and Jacobs’s production is replete with excellent performances, but we know all too well that the beast is dangerous, and he gets off too easy.

La Bête continues at The Young Centre until June 22