Generally, I like my comedies as I like my martinis – very dry. La Bête is… well, not dry. In fact, it’s about as broad as broad gets. But, hey, that can be fun, too – especially in the hands of the superb comic actors in Arden’s company, deftly deployed by director Emmanuelle Delpech.
In David Hirson’s play, an hommage to Molière, two rival actor-writers, Elomire (note the anagram) and Valere, are pitted against each other. Not that it matters much – this slender thread of a plot often disappears almost entirely.
You won’t mind, though – certainly not when Scott Greer takes to the stage (he’s Valere, the boorish one), in a virtuoso monologue that summons every shtick in his comedy playbook. Even if you’ve seen and loved Greer in many other roles (I have), you’ll find he still has some surprises up his sleeve (I did).
At moments like this, La Bête seems to be a vehicle for Greer, but there’s more. To Delpech’s credit, the rest of the company – especially Ian Merrill Peakes and James Ijames – give equally richly textured, if quieter, performances. Peakes, in particular, delivers the verse (yes, the play follows that Molière convention) with exceptional panache. (How lucky we are that he’ll be playing Macbeth later this season!)
In other featured roles, Amanda Schoonover and Dito van Riegersberg also get to strut their stuff. The remaining cast members really function as an ensemble – you won’t even see most of them till Act II – but each actor scores personal and delightful points.
Did I mention that it’s visually stunning? Hats off to the design team, who evoke 17th Century France so sumptuously.
Two caveats, though – the show goes on too long; and although Delpech and the delectable Schoonover fashion a gorgeously Chaplin-esque final image, the end of La Bête attempts to summon a gravitas that Hirson’s frothy script hasn’t earned.
Still, for fans of comic acting, La Bête is a must-see. With this playing downstairs at the Arden – and 1812’s marvelous Intimate Exchanges upstairs – plan to make a weekend of it!
La Bête, Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, through October 12th. www.ardentheatre.org