The play by David Hirson was inspired by Molière and pits the high-brow artist Elomire (David Hyde Pierce) against the common street entertainer, Valere (Mark Rylance), whose own sense of self-importance surpasses grandiose. Elomire’s troop has a royal commission from the Princess, grandly played by none other than “Absolutely Fabulous’s” Patsy, Joanna Lumley. Valere has convinced the Princess (originally written as a prince, by the by) to allow him to join Elomire’s troop, but without consulting Elomire. Elomire attempts to revolt but is presented with a writ from the queen demanding that he not only allow Valere to perform, but that they also perform some of his works. This makes Elomire apoplectic.
Unfortunately for Elomire, once Valere has entered, he won’t get a word in edge-wise. Rylance takes the character of Valere, already a pompous, arrogant and obstreperous buffoon and adds rocket fuel with his performance. From his entrance to approximately half-way through the play he doesn’t stop talking, even when his mouth is full. How he remembers all those lines I’ll never know. Mr. Rylance gets his teeth into this character and he shakes it like a pit-bull with a rag-toy.
David Hyde Pierce is wonderful as the elitist thespian and troupe leader. Compared in size with Rylance’s role, this is an almost minor role for Pierce. Ms. Lumley (beautifully costumed by Mark Thompson, also credited with the impressive scenic design) has one of the most tricked-out stage entrances since G(a)linda came down in that bubble. She is stunning and grand with a commanding presence as the Princess. As Bejart, Elomire’s second in command, Stephen Ouimette does incredulity brilliantly. (Valere is constantly making fun of his hump-back and the fact that he is always playing the roles of “humpbacked beggars, philistines and trolls.”) Gretta Lee is hilarious as the monosyllabic, rhyming house-keeper who resorts to pantomime to convey what she means.
The play asks the question, what is art and who gets to decide. It mourns the loss of excellence and its replacement, mediocrity. Thankfully that is not the case here. Director Matthew Warchus (a Tony Award winner for God of Carnage) takes the verse of the play and has directed the actors so that rather than being able to anticipate what the rhyme will be, one is continually surprised by the rhythm. Warcus (along with the help of the playwright) accomplishes this through the use of changes in meter and vocal cadence. The play is musical, without being a musical.
La Bête will not be everyone’s cup of tea but Rylance’s performance alone is worth the trip to the theatre. I expect to see Mr. Rylance on the aisle at next June’s Tony Awards. Even with 30 or so shows left to open this season, it’s hard to imagine that someone can top his performance.