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La Bête — Arden Theatre

labete -- interiorAll begins well with Emmanuelle Delpech’s production of “La Bête” at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre.

That is if you don’t count the gratuitously bizarre antics of Amanda Schoonover as Dorine, the maid, in David Hirson’s treatise on the arts, presented, like French comedy, in rhymed couplets.

Or the clanky, circusy tone of the music in Jorge Cousineau’s sound design.

Ian Merrill Peakes and James Ijames, playing two principal actors in a royal patronized theater troupe, speak Hirson’s lines splendidly, phrasing all to bring out every bit of cleverness, and acid, in the playwright’s script and using their mellifluous, well-tuned voices to display the shrewdness of Hirson’s writing.

Delight seems to be in store. Schoonover’s strange turn and Cousineau’s jangly choice are distant and inconsequential memories as Peakes and Ijames exchange ideas and prove to be so witty and adroit with Hirson’s verse.

Their discussion is interesting as well. Because the existence of their company depends on the pleasure of their sponsor, Prince Conti, a veritable king in his home province of Languedoc in 1654 (during the reign of Louis XIV and in the time of Molière, for which Elomire is an anagram), Peakes’s character, Elomire,  the director of the troupe, is miffed that Conti, by official writ, has forced on him the services of an actor, Valere, he finds repugnant and unworthy of sharing a stage with anyone, let alone the actors in his company.

Ijames’s Bejart, the raisonneur throughout Hirson’s play, tries to soften his colleague’s ire and to persuade him to accept Valere as a means to placate the Prince and maintain his critical patronage.

The badinage is fast and amusing. Peakes’s Elomire can be at once logical and vitriolic. He argues about the purity of art, a finesse and sensibility that must be consistent throughout the company, and his impression that Valere is a Philistine buffoon who will tarnish the troupe’s reputation and diminish its quality.

Ijames’s Bejart continues to sue for reason. He tells Elomire to humor the Prince by giving Valere  a  chance. Elomire, Bejart says, should at least talk to the man and grant him some kind of audience, if not an outright audition. To Bejart’s mind the Prince has spoken, and that is the sum of the situation. Like it or not, the troupe will have to welcome Valere, and Elomire may as well reconcile himself to that reality.

Matters are not made any rosier by reports that Valere, having been invited to dine at the Prince’s estate with the company, exhibits the appetite of a  half-starved peasant and the manners of a barn animal. His very presence is odious to Elomire, and there’s not much Bejart can do to assuage his colleague’s anger at the Prince’s edict or disdain at Valere’s monumental oafishness.

Given the build-up Valere’s received, the audience cannot wait to see him and judge for itself.

This is where Delpech’s production goes suddenly and irrevocably awry.

Scott Greer is arguably the finest actor among many possible candidates that populate Philadelphia-area stages with regularity. He can go from comic to touching at the speed of light. Despite his size, he can play a romantic hero or use his size to enhance the movements of a clown. He has Jackie Gleason-style grace, an expressive face that can recall Dalí or Rembrandt with equal effect, a voice that can go from Richard Burton to Curly Howard, an acting range that can animate any character, and the taste and sensibility to know when to use which weapon is his arsenal.

Scott Greer is a wonderful, reliable, versatile, and incredibly entertaining actor.

He’s the best, and in a world that includes Peakes, Dibble, Coon, DeLaurier, Bunting, Olmstead, Wood, Braithwaite, and up-and-comers like Sean Lally and Keith Conallen, that’s quite an accolade.

And quite the reason I was looking forward to the Arden’s “La Bête” since it was announced, with Greer as its focal character, towards the end of last season.

You know, I’m sure; I’ve not been subtle; I must endure, with no rebuttal; to satisfy your certain hunch; and hit Greer with a rabbit punch.

To say I was disappointed in Greer’s Valere would be an understatement. I expected a boor. I didn’t account for a bore.

Did I laugh during Greer’s half-hour monologue that dominates the first act of “La Bête?” Of course I did. Greer did not leave all of his skill at home. The man knows how to turn a phrase or milk a moment in a way that entertains without seeming self-conscious. He has a physical repertoire and facial expression that is innately comic. I could not dismiss Greer’s entire performance.

Let me just say I found it misjudged. I thought Greer, probably as directed by Delpech, played his big scene moment by moment instead of as an entirety.

Sure, scenes are broken down in bits, just as drawing often involves more concentration on the shape of a section of an object than on the total, completed object.

Greer’s Valere is all over the place. There’s  no build to the character because you see all from Greer’s entrance. He leaves himself  nowhere to go, so he depends on variety to carry and give levels to his grand monologue.

This approach doesn’t work because more of Greer’s performance looks and sounds like shtick from a person totally unaware of what he’s doing or saying as much as he babbles out of a sheer need to be “on”. It offers a great idea of Valere, but a Valere that would  be too much for the Prince or anyone to bear. Greer, or Delpech, is too intent on joking, too fixed on making every minute of Valere’s screed potentially hilarious, to realize the character has become tedious beyond the parameters of Hirson’s script.

Picking one’s nose and eating the booger might be a riot among third graders in a school yard or a mischievous, purposely creepy act of grossness in a junior high school hallway, but it’s the wrong kind of clownishness for Valere, who may not understand how his behavior effects people, but who would try to make a good impression on Elomire and Bejart when called into their presence.

Neither nerves nor obtuseness cover the panoply of tricks Greer pulls out. Nor can his character’s possible overeagerness to please of fit it. Greer out-Schoonovers Schoonover, which in this production, borders on the pathetic. But more of Amanda, and Delpech’s mangling of her role, later.

Greer has not measured out an entire performance. A decent bit, such as rapidly crossing himself 12 times to exaggerate Valere’s piety or obsequiously praising Elomire’s work while denigrating in the next breath, is cancelled by unfocused verbal rambling and artlessly contrived physical business. Greer and Delpech seem to labor at keeping Valere obnoxious although Hirson has written the part so he can’t come across as anything else.

This destroys two things. It obliterates Valere’s validity even to be considered as a member of Elomire’s troupe. He is too unacceptable and shows no talent or acting skill that would ameliorate that opinion. One look at Greer’s Valere, and the Prince would rescind his writ faster than Arabians speak Arabian.

Worse than that, especially since Hirson and his text decide the Prince’s actions, and Elomire’s, it takes away the compulsion to watch Greer’s every move.

If everything, no matter what Greer does, is going to be in the same family of shtick, why concentrate on his entire act? We don’t need a half-hour. We know all in half a second.

While Greer finds some sly readings of Hirson’s couplets, he doesn’t display the surehanded ease Peakes and Ijames do with them. Like his overall performance, his delivery is all over the place.

I have no doubt Scott Greer could be brilliant in the part of Valere in David Hirson’s “La Bête,” but he would need a more careful, more attuned director than Emmanuelle Delpech to guide him through the arduous and mine-strewn paces of this particular tour de force.

As it appears now on the Arden stage, Greer entertains in doses, and they aren’t consistent or evolving enough to sustain the length of time his character dominates proceedings.

Valere is supposed to be tedious. He is supposed to wear out his welcome. We’re supposed to be grateful when he finally shuts up.

That moment needs to be like an epiphany, a time of admiration for an artist who, though playing an uncouth bumpkin, with no redeeming traits, has enthralled us with his dazzling skills as an entertainer. In Greer’s case, I was grateful for a period of torture to be ended.

For most of the half-hour, Valere is outraging Elomire and Bejart with his obtuse bombast, I was bored. The monologue was underdeveloped on some levels and too histrionic in others, and not by Hirson’s design as much as by Greer’s or Delpech’s choices. Greer’s bag of tricks led nowhere. You had a pick out a moment’s pleasure here or a laugh there. As a whole, Valere’s long passage is a failure, and that’s a shame because Hirson’s play cannot afford this central piece of dramatic bravura to break down, and because I know Scott Greer is capable of acing this sequence.

He is sabotaged in a way from the start.

Ian Merrill Peakes and James Ijames look impeccable in the costumes Rosemarie E. McKelvey designed for them. Peakes is particularly rakish in a wig that takes his hair past his shoulders and gathers it behind. Ijames looks trim is both shirt sleeves and a jacket that seems tailored to him.

Elomire and Bejart are supported by the Prince. They most likely have stipends that allow them to buy their habiliments from worthy tailors and haberdashers.

Valere, in contrast, is a street performer. He acts out his plays, assaying all of the characters and throwing in some jigging, juggling, and perhaps nosepicking as bonuses to titter the crowd. He does not have wherewithal, so it stands to reason his clothes may be shabbier than Elomire’s and not kept in as crisp a condition.

McKelvey goes too far in dressing Valere down. Way too far. He appears in a garish outfit, half a size too big for even the ample Greer, and badly stained, as if Valere has been wiping kitchen grease on his blouson for decades.

Some degree of dishevelment is warranted. Valere is poor and a slob. He does scrounge out his living from tips collected in the town square. He is not under the protection of a Bourbon. He may not be able to invest in a new suit. The problem is neither McKelvey nor Delpech know the limits about how outlandish to make Valere look. They have a sense of the ridiculous, but not of the funny. Especially since the Arden’s own literature says Valere is a “fop.” Not someone who sleeps under a bridge, but a “fop!” Doesn’t that suggest a mode of dress that may not, for practical reasons be the most fastidious, but would, for character reasons, be in keeping with contemporary style circa 1654 and as presentable as possible?

Hirson gives hints as to how Valere might react to an invitation to Prince Conti’s estate. He presents Valere as being poor and as being unaware of how rude he might be or how inappropriate he is, but he gives him standards.

Valere begins his marathon rant by being obsequiously and falsely delighted to be in Elomire’s presence while interrupting his fawning to disparage the food he was served at the Prince’s table.

This is a man without etiquette, but  a man of pretensions. His words reveal him to be someone with a vin ordinaire budget and cognac tastes. Though blind to his faults and the most insufferable aspects of his behavior, he would begin by putting on airs, by attempting to act as a social equal to Elomire and Bejart.

Hirson tells us so. He also tells Delpech, McKelvey, and Greer.

Yet, McKelvey sends Greer on stage with lace-trimmed pantaloons that hang like the odious basketball shorts young men wear today and almost touch his shoes. The pattern of his outfit is more than unseemly. If it’s Valere’s only garment, it registers as unsuitable for the plays he enacts on the streets and won’t pass muster at court. Even someone as unaware as Valere is of the impression he makes would know his suit is inferior for the occasion of meeting a prince. The costume is more than a mistake of bad taste or misunderstanding what is stylish. McKelvey and Delpech have made Valere a visual joke before Greer has a chance to display him as a comic figure.

The effect is witless. It show that Delpech doesn’t comprehend all that Hirson is aiming at and has bent “La Bête” to her image, sometimes a good thing for a director to do, without taking much regard of the playwright’s text.

If the look of Valere’s ensemble is not bad enough, McKelvey throws all credibility into the abyss when she chooses to shoe Valere in 21st century yellow high-top sneakers.

Either she or Delpech doesn’t know a joke from a bad idea.

And that is what plagues Greer’s recitation, a slew of bad ideas that attempt to pass for comedy.

As I’ve mentioned Valere is irritating enough, purposely so. The character doesn’t need help in making him look or be ludicrous. He’s written that way.

I expect a deft comedian like Scott Greer to physicalize a character. I expect Emmanuelle Delpech, trained in clowning and steeped in European tradition, to give Valere traits of a street busker. But I expect all to be in proportion and in keeping with the best interest of a play, not antics for antics sake.

Greer is successful in segueing to different threads of Valere’s monologue. He has the timing of his “oh, and  one more thing” moments pat, but he is not in control of all he does within a section of the monologue.

He is also given to excesses. The nosepicking is one example, and that, predictably, gets a big enough groan or “ewww” reaction from the audience to make Greer and Delpech think the gambit is on the mark.

The worst indulgence comes when Greer plays Valere acting a classical passage from one on his own, or Elomire’s plays.

Greer goes into a parody of classical speech, but you’re not sure at first whether he’s making fun of the rounded tones of a grand Thespian, such as Elomire, or if he’s trying to make a joke by demonstrating how Valere’s approaches classical acting as a rule. In essence, he sounds like Ernie Kovacs’s Percy Dovetonsils, sort of in the timbre of Laurence Olivier corrupted by the less trained strains of Marlon Brando.  I thought perhaps Brando’s Marc Antony in the 1953 movie of “Julius Caesar” wasGreer’s model. (Kovacs may be ahead of Greer’s time, but Greer is the husband of Jennifer Childs, one of the great students of comedy history, so….)

To be more descriptive, when Greer’s Valere purports to deliver a dramatic speech, he pitches his voice in a reedy register, purses his lips, goes nasal, and pinches out his words like a canary singing flat. It reminded me of the voice Johnny Carson used when he appeared in a comedy sketch as a prim old lady. Or like Hermione Gingold with a cold.

Once again, the choice is showy and shticky, but not funny. The bit is too forced, too unbelievable. It drips with inauthenticity. It grates on first hearing. By the fourth time Greer uses the same gambit, the joke has not built, it’s fizzled four times because it never had the wit or comic placement to work. You get the feeling Delpech is a prankster and goading Greer into unwise choices that will get him into dire trouble.

That feeling is more than justified. It’s manifested with alarming regularity.

Greer is often able to show how obtuse and objectionable Valere is. He has a good exchange with Ijames about Bejart’s humpback. His discourse on the food, though cruder in tone that I’d prefer, has humorous moments, mainly because it comes at the top of the monologue, before Greer wears you out.

Greer does give the sense, important to the play, that Valere is a hack who pulls out all stops to gather a crowd and solicit gratuities. He also shows the character’s belief he can play any role and his knack for saying he can do something even when it’s clear, or demonstrated, it’s beyond his grasp. And there is a genuinely inspired improvisation or two, such as when Valere, who has pulled a hot dog, mustard at all, from thin air, uses the top flap of its bun like a mouth, and proceeds with his dialogue as if the hot dog is talking.

Scott Greer cannot speak non-stop for a half-hour without eliciting some laughs, including some well-earned ones,  but for the most part, his performance cuts a big hole in the Arden’s “La Bête,” one Delpech and company never quite manage to fill.

The reason I’m delving so deeply into Greer’s performance is because Valere’s monologue is intended to focus Hirson’s play by providing perspective for an event and argument that is to come while at the Arden, it  disrupts action and puts the logic of “La Bête” out of kilter.

Just as “La Bête” contains a debate about differing approaches to art, theater in particular, and questions irrefutable authority that can dictate the practice of art, either by political fiat or by overly strict adherence to one aesthetic, Greer’s take on Valere raises a question about interpretation vs. serving the overall needs of a play.

Hirson has a purpose for Valere that goes beyond him being an insufferable, egotistic boor. He ‘s meant to represent a practitioner of a less formal, more improvisational, more accessible, and more populist art than Elomire’s.

Valere is a street performer. He entertains to hustle a living, and he needs to be a crowd pleaser.

To satisfy folks in the square, folks we wants to arrest in their tracks, he has to be flexible. He needs to adapt a story when he notices gatherers are impressed. He needs to tell a joke and be salacious. He can indulge in the vulgar. And it never hurts to expose a body part, especially when Valere, playing all of the characters in his creations, flashes a nipple, or more, to a lascivious throng.

Valere juggles. Valere plays various musical instruments. Valere clowns. And Valere can speak in flights of poetry.

Valere also panders. Valere also takes short cuts. And if all else fails, Valere doesn’t mind getting a laugh from a rubber chicken. It’s a cruel world out there, and Valere has to attract a crowd or starve. (Maybe he got those yellow high-tops from the 17th century French version of a telephone wire.)

Elomire objects to the tawdriness and vaudeville nature of Valere’s act. He sees him as the lowest form of entertainer and cannot conceive of him being an artist.

Prince Conti thinks Elomire is a cultural snob, whose dramas are stilted and need exactly the kind of enlivening and playing to the crowd he sees from Valere in the square.

That’s why he issues his edict, to prompt, albeit by command, Elomire to consider alternatives ways to composing and staging shows.

For the Prince to be in his right mind, the actor playing Valere must, at least, convey a semblance of someone who would enhance a patron’s troupe instead of compromising or ruining it. Valere is not meant to have the polish and rigid need for perfection Elomire does, but he should appear to be a plausible candidate to animate Elomire’s productions and make them more amusing.

Greer’s take on Valere, or Delpech’s, precludes that happening. He offers a comic turn, a routine, instead of a study, boorish and vulgar to a point, of someone Elomire finds unsuitable for his company while the Prince does not.

That’s why the exaggerated voice, the one that sounds like a comedian’s parody, grates so much.

It’s wrong for the occasion. Worse, it isn’t even funny. Round tones, like the ones Gene Kelly’s and Donald O’Connor’s characters spoof in “Singin’ in the Rain,” might have worked better. They fit more in the range of the acceptably bombastic.

That’s why Greer going on for 30 minutes with a profusion of “Did you ever hear the one…” shtick doesn’t play. It doesn’t give a grounding to Hirson’s play. It registers as an exception, a diversion. It is not an integral part of a total piece, but one that makes what happens after the monologue incoherent.

When Valere finishes his exhausting take, you should be undecided about whether Elomire, prejudiced and wed to one style of theater, or the Prince, who is looking for more variety and ha-cha-cha, is right about Valere’s place in the royal acting troupe.

Delpech has made the mistake musical comedy directors made when they have Adelaide be mediocre in “Guys and Dolls” or leave Sally Bowles will no allure in “Cabaret.” “La Bête’s” audience needs to believe Valere has a chance to be an asset to the Prince’s company. And not because the Prince has the power to dissolve the company if its members take his ideas as suggestions rather than as decrees, but because Valere will provide esprit Elomire inhibits.

Delpech misses the point of Valere’s demonstration, just as she overplays the charades Amanda Schoonover must, according to Hirson’s script, enact as Dorine.

The director has no sensibility about the nature of the material she is staging. She cannot, and is not, then a capable mirror for Greer, and so the actor founders.

I think a more wily, more competitive Valere is in order, one who tries to impress Elomire and Bejart with his gourmet tastes rather than one who rails about the palace’s cookery like a coarse ingrate, one who knows he is coming to the Prince’s estate and grooms himself for the occasion, even if his garments are in bad taste and sport a grease stain or two, one who doesn’t sink to low comedy to find a declamatory tone but unwittingly parodies a classical actor’s pretensions, and one who reveals some iota of potential in the material he writes himself.

Taking this higher road still leaves plenty of chances for bathos or comedy. There’s Valere’s lack of tact regarding Bejart’s hump and his failure to grasp when Elomire blatantly insults him for Greer to draw on. There’s the “and another thing” takes. And there’s the preening vanity of one bursting with self-confidence and self-love who has no idea how obnoxious or annoying he is. And the 12 crosses and hot dog-turned-marionette can stay.

Delpech leaves Greer at sea or misleads him. She envisions the character as an out-and-out clown instead of as a deluded second-rater who has the single virtue of being more lively and exciting his audience more thoroughly than Elomire entertains Prince Conti. Valere’s monologue is innately funny. It doesn’t need humor, or hokum, thrust upon it. Valere is a fool, not an idiot, savant or otherwise, and Delpech doesn’t seem to know the character at all.  I would love to see what another director could do with Greer in this part. I would hope the result would be more in keeping with the needs of “La Bête” and less boring.

Yes, ultimately I found Greer’s Valere a bore. Isolated instances of inspiration weren’t enough to make me wish the character to continue with his bit. I felt the same way when Valere and Elomire’s troupe act out Valere’s play, “The Two Little Boys of Cadiz” (or some title akin to that). While this bit in “La Bête’s” second act, is more successful and has the advantage of a wider group of players, Delpech again mistakes buffoonery for foolery and creates a circus when sincere attempt at a flawed piece is called for as a superior plan.

Delpech’s overall production is a bit schizoid. When Valere is not the dominant figure on stage and Dorine is held in check, the Arden’s “La Bête” is quite competent and entertaining.

Ian Merrill Peakes are James Ijames are marvelous in their parts. Peakes is a master of exasperation and makes Elomire’s case beautifully.

Peakes’s reading of Hirson’s couplets should set an example for the entire Arden troupe. To borrow a reference from some English play, words fall trippingly from Peakes’s tongue and makes all of his speeches a delight. The actor also stays consistent with his part, upholding standards for Elomire’s brand of theater even when his stance imperils his position or relationship with the Prince. Peakes plays Elomire’s pride and sense of honor well and with dignity.

Ijames also delivers his lines beautifully but, beyond that, his expressions as Bejart tries to temper Elomire’s rages and his incredulous looks at Valere are priceless. Ijames’s is a complete performance that is loaded with irony and does not depend on shtick.

Set designer James Kronzer acquits himself well with a handsome rehearsal room in the Prince’s palace. The blond walls and red trim are bright and classy. Doors and windows are well-placed and well-used. The long playing space, resembling a large 7 placed on its side in mirror image, the cap of the seven being stage left, gives Delpech opportunities for pageantry and concentrated playing areas.

If Rosemarie E. McKelvey was wrongheaded with Valere’s costume, she more than makes up for it with the long red coat, gorgeous red garments, and the becoming wig she designs for Dito van Reigersberg as Prince Conti.

Van Reigersberg makes a dramatic entrance, looking in Thom Weaver’s lights as if he is nine-feet-tall and an envoy from heaven. Or a colorful “Amadeus.”

Like Peakes and Ijames, van Reigersberg is deft with his lines and is sly about making the Prince seem benevolent when he more than willing to exert every ounce of his considerable power to enact his will.

Conti is critical of Elomire.  He finds his work elegant but static. He wants to give it more spirit and appeal. That’s why, after he witnesses Valere entrancing people in the town square, he orders Elomire to recruit him for the Prince’s company.

Van Reigersberg makes the Prince’s case clear. He is not going to argue where he can command, but he states a case that is the crux of Hirson’s play, that serious theater might may benefit from the leavening of someone who is more populist entertainer than rule-bound artist.

Hirson never shows us any of Elomire’s plays. Nor does he have Elomire deliver a speech, so we can’t know if Elomire’s writing or presentation is as stultifying as the Prince suggests. We have to believe his content and style surpasses Valere’s, even though the “Little Boys from Cadiz” play had its merits.

Van Reigersberg  seems to enjoy his costume and dons it with great flare.

Several times, I’ve mentioned Amanda Schoonover’s turn as Dorine, a teenage maid whose latest in a series of adolescent whims is to speak only in monosyllables that rhyme with the word, “blue,” while acting out the remainder of a message.

Here Hirson shares blame with Delpech. The gimmick is far-fetched and adds nothing but more annoyance to the production. Schoonover is overly strident as Dorine, but even if she was more demure or standardly farcical, her miming of words or concepts she wants auditors to understand is uniformly poor. I don’t blame the actress for this (unless she was given the chance to improvise the clues she gives), but I chalk up one more example of ineptitude on the part of Delpech.

I have to admit I got all of Schoonover’s charades before the characters on stage did, but in general, I thought her clues ill-conceived and bizarre for the sake of being bizarre.  An ongoing joke about Dorine’s skimpy dress is also badly interpreted and handled in a silly, rather than witty way. Silliness trumping wit seems to be part of the modus operandi of Delpech’s direction.

In spite of introductions, it was hard to keep up with the names of the members of Elomire’s troupe. I enjoyed the supporting ensemble, especially when they were engaged in the “Cadiz” play. Michael Doherty made a particular impression. He, Alex Bechtel, Alex Keiper, Taysha Canales, and Wendy Staton are a comely troupe that does its best with what it’s given and has a moment where all sing in lovely harmony. Like Doherty, Keiper and Canales have stand-out moments.

The Prince’s idea that even the most pristine theater can use a soupçon of levity is never fully explored, but I think it’s one worth discussing. The Prince certainly does not make a great claim for government control of the arts, but I’m sure his generosity as a sponsoring patron would be greatly appreciated if he’d only butt out of the actual theatrical process.

“La Bête” runs through Sunday, October 12, at the Arden Theater, 40 N. 2nd Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 23 or Sundays, Oct, 5 and 12. Tickets range from $50 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or by visiting www.ardentheatre.org.

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