Set at a princely estate in 17th-century France, LA BÊTE—David Hirson’s riotous comedy in rhyming couplets—evokes the farcical Baroque style of Molière while conveying a timeless message about high art versus low art, via characters that are high class versus low class, and purist versus sell-outs. Under Emmanuelle Delpech’s well-balanced direction, the Arden’s stellar ensemble brings out both the fun and the meaning of Hirson’s dazzling script, displaying perfect control of its witty verbal gymnastics and an on-point delivery of its serious themes of cultural decline, socio-economic contrasts in stratified communities, and the seemingly incompatible values of artistic excellence with low-brow popular appeal.
Scott Greer as Valere—a boorish street performer and playwright, and the titular French beast—and Ian Merrill Peakes as Elomire—a refined wordsmith and head of a courtly acting troupe (whose name is an anagram of Molière)—provide the consummate combative counterpoints, compelled to collaborate by their imperious patron Prince Conti (Dito van Reigersberg). The hilarious Greer is full of hot-air and histrionics (bombastic, vulgar, egomaniacal, and sycophantic), monologizing non-stop for more than a half-hour on his own over-inflated merits (his tour-de-force panegyric is filled with nonsensical invented words, or “verbobos,” and laughably crude physical humor—spitting, scratching, belching, nose-picking, and ear-cleaning with his quill pen), while Peakes displays all the well-bred haughtiness, lofty eloquence, artistic integrity, full-on exasperation, and unmitigated disdain for the performer he considers his inferior, remaining ferocious in his unwillingness to compromise his standards.
James Ijames as Bejart, a leader in Elomire’s troupe, provides at first a reflection of and then a foil to his colleague, changing from appalled to amused to necessarily accepting of Valere. And the appealing Amanda Schoonover as Dorine, the Prince’s teenage maid, represents the future generations that will suffer from the decay of good taste and the crashing down around them of the noble structure of Theater, as symbolized in James Kronzer’s scenic design. Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s lavish costumes combine historicizing fashion with contemporary details that underscore the current relevance of Hirson’s moral. Vive l’excellence! It is alive and well at the Arden. [40 N. 2nd St.] September 11-October 12, 2014; ardentheatre.org.