THEATER – REVIEW – ‘La Bete’ – Theater company: Valencia Character Company. – Playwright: David Hirson. – Cast: Brett P. Carson, Vernon K. Denegar, Rio Doyle, Gloria Duggan, Christian Guevarra, Mark Hale, Tom Joyner, Laura Martinez, A.D. McMillan III, Stephan Nelson, Kristen Patti, Benjamin N. Peckham. – Director: Peg O’Keef. – Set and lighting designer: Michael Shugg. – Costume designer: Virginia McKinney. – Theater: Performing Arts Center, Valencia Community College East Campus, 701 N. Econlockhatchee Trail, Orlando. – Times: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. – Tickets: $6 general, $5 faculty, staff, students and seniors. – Reservations: (407) 275-1603.
February 18, 1994
Talk to people about a play in rhymed couplets, and their eyes glaze over. Seventeenth century, they think. Men in ruffles. Powdered wigs.
Yet there’s not a speck of dust on David Hirson’s La Bete, a comedy written not in the 17th century but in 1990 and presented by the Valencia Character Company with a lot of its humor and most of its rhymed couplets intact.
Playwright Hirson has run riot with his verse, veering wildly between the highbrow and the low, so that the result is a comical stew of juxtapositions. And the rhymes themselves show an inventiveness no rhyming dictionary can match. Anyone who thinks of rhyming mimesis and prosthesis – or who can use them in the same sentence – has a promising future in store.
At Valencia, director Peg O’Keef’s largely student cast succeeds best with La Bete when her performers stop fighting those rhymed couplets and instead wallow in them – savoring the words one by one and listening to what they mean.
Only inexperience sometimes dogs La Bete, when some of its performers make a mishmash of Hirson’s rhymes or, worse, try to run with them and wind up stumbling along the way.
First produced on Broadway in early 1991, La Bete – the French title means the beast or, more aptly, the fool – drips with all the trappings of 17th century comedy, including the men in ruffles and wigs. Hirson tells the story of a company of actors, led by a man named Elomire, who depend on the beneficence of Prince Conti, their patron. The prince decrees that a troubadour named Valere be made part of the company, and Valere turns out to be the most obnoxious sort of nincompoop – a jerk who thinks he’s clever and who comes very close to driving Elomire over the edge.
La Bete tries to make a not-very-original point about the bad being rewarded and the good punished: With Prince Conti in charge, no one should be surprised that mediocrity bubbles to the top. But what’s much more interesting about the show is the quality of the wordplay itself. At Valencia, at least some of O’Keef’s performers revel in Hirson’s language. The best of them are a pleasure to hear.
As Elomire, Tom Joyner gives the impression that he grew up on iambic pentameter; Joyner speaks beautifully, and his Elomire has all the arrogant fervor of a man who knows he’s morally correct. He shares such utter conviction (as well as his understanding of the play’s language) with Brett P. Carson’s Prince Conti, a jolly sort who also happens to be a dope and whom Carson fills with an imperiously self-satisfied air.
Most of the performers in lesser roles show their inexperience; the exception is Kristen Patti as a charming but monosyllabic maid named Dorine. Yet O’Keef has directed the ensemble to move as one when it must, and its comedic timing couldn’t be better. And she has added funny directorial touches: The prince arrives to a fanfare familiar from the old movie version of The Phantom of the Opera, and a couple of royal servants, adorned in sunglasses and bearing cellular phones, look like secret-service agents or Elvis’ bodyguards.
Unfortunately, she also has encouraged Christian Guevarra, who plays the fool Valere, to gallop through his role as if he were Robin Williams on speed. Guevarra does have a huge amount of energy. But he gets so carried away with the rhythm of his speeches that he rides right over their meanings, and it’s impossible to understand the bulk of what he has to say. Guevarra tries to switch moods and characters the way Williams often does. But his lack of discipline makes all that effort moot: All we hear from him is doggerel.
Still, La Bete works in a lot of wonderful ways – in Michael Shugg’s appropriately sumptuous set, a collection of decorated columns of various heights that move aside when the prince makes his royal entrance; in Virginia McKinney’s ridiculous foppish costumes; and especially in Hirson’s humor, which is sometimes nonsensical and sometimes makes all the sense in the world. This La Bete may be uneven, and some of Valencia’s students may have a long way to go to learn to speak such a play the way it’s meant to be. Well might they listen to Elomire’s advice: that words, sapped of their meaning, lose their clout.