By Daedalus Howell
"GOD LOVE the critics, bless their picky hearts!" jabs Valere, the prolix priss of playwright David Hirson's 1992 verse comedy La Bête. Granted, if critics have hearts at all, they have picky ones, but seldom are they won over so consummately as with the Cinnabar Theater's production of Hirson's masterwork, directed by Deborah Eubanks.
Set in 18th-century France, the play follows the adventures of a small acting troupe--led by Elomire (Michael Fontaine) and his sidekick Beljart (Sean Casey)--that receives a writ from their patron Prince Conti (Chris Murphy) commanding admittance of uppity street performer Valere (Jeremy Anglin) into their ranks. Aghast at the prince's decree, Elomire plunges into a war of wits with Valere that comes to a surprising and enlightening end.
Director Eubanks brings Hirson's work to the stage with alacrity and expertise. She not only successfully navigates a couple of hours of rhyming couplets (a Herculean task in and of itself), but also channels the dynamism of this talented cast into a sidesplitting and poignant riff on what it means to be an artist.
Anglin is superb as the vain and loquacious beast Valere, whose bombastic outbursts make logorrhea sound like a vow of silence. He prances, preens, and openly flatters himself, and in so doing is a both gorgeously annoying and annoyingly gorgeous. Watch for the hilariously self-reverential monologue Anglin performs in the first act, a rapid-fire harangue that proves Valere put the "go" in ego.
Fontaine's Elomire, a stuffy dramaturge disinterested in wiping the ass of the enfant terrible, enjoys a stunning character arc on which is strung the play's most trenchant theme--populist crap will always have an audience whereas art in its finer forms is doomed to struggle. Ack!
Fontaine's deft acting (he's a genius of the reaction shot) renders this point flawlessly. His touchingly drawn character validates the tack of true artists who turn their backs on mediocrity, even at the risk of turning themselves into dramatis personae non grata.
Chris Murphy is adept at portraying the aristocratic arrogance of Prince Conti, an easily manipulated monarch whose vanity serves as puppet strings to Valere.
Throughout the production, Bronwen Watt's Dorine, a servant at Elomire's home who speaks only in monosyllabic rhymes of "blue," proves to be the director's secret weapon. She is responsible for dozens of belly laughs, as when she frantically tries to relay messages à la a game of charades and closes the show with an evocative gesture, arms outstretched, suggesting both scales and emotional resignation--a perfect coda to the onstage dilemma.
Sharp young actors Illya Bonel and Zach Singerman turn in sly performances as the Prince's servants-qua-food-tasters. Both reveal faculties for comic understatement as they subtly perform their royal duties while blending into the onstage mosaic. Their restraint is commendable, as they easily could have stolen the show.
The Cinnabar's production of La Bête is more than an entertaining diversion. It is a philosophically and emotionally engaging work of theater that leaves the audience the better for seeing it.
'La Bête' plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. (with a special Thursday show on Oct. 14 at 8 p.m.) through Oct. 16 at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. $14. For details, call 763-8920.
From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.