La Bete -- Theater Review

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"La Bete" is a 1991 American play by David Hirson set in 17th century France, and besides being extremely funny, it has a lot to say about the dumbing down of art and entertainment.

Mark Rylance, a 2010 Olivier Award winner for "Jerusalem," has the plum comic role of vulgar, self-absorbed and outlandish actor-writer Valere, who is foisted upon serious dramatist Elomire, played with exquisite disdain by "Frasier" star David Hyde Pierce.

Joanna Lumley contributes all the haughty bemusement of her character in "Absolutely Fabulous" as the princess in whose court Elomire -- anagram for Moliere -- operates the official theatrical troupe.

Attracted by the brash simplicity of Valere's street performances, she wants Elomire to combine the crude vagabond clown's accessible productions with his artistic creations.

Valere makes his entrance spitting undigested food, belching, farting and speaking incessantly. It's an epic speech of about 30 minutes, and Rylance does it superbly with such vocal agility, verbal punctuation and pantomime that it leaves the audience weeping with laughter.

Hyde Pierce at first seems doomed to play only in reaction to Rylance, which he does with great finesse, but Elomire comes to the fore in the second half of the play, defending artistic endeavor against the rushing in of fools.

It helps that Hirson has written the play in rhyming couplets, but director Matthew Warchus makes sure the skillful players glide by the obvious emphasis on key words, making sentences entirely sensible but never overlooking their witty structure.

"La Bete" is widely accessible, but it will resonate especially with anyone who has seen a company boss compromise quality and sacrifice principles in pursuit of mass popularity. Television and newspapers come to mind, but there is evidence of such folly everywhere.

The play won awards but was not a commercial success when first presented, but the new production sees the original prince changed to a princess, with rewriting to make up for the lack of an interval through 105 minutes.

Funny and insightful, "La Bete" should prosper in the West End and also on Broadway, where it is headed when it wraps its London run.

Venue: Comedy Theatre, London (Through Sept. 4)
Cast: Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, Joanna Lumley
Playwright: David Hirson
Director: Matthew Warchus
Set designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Music: Claire Van Kampen
Sound designer: Simon Baker for Autograph
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