KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 23, 1998
Comedy is serious business. It isn’t easy to write, and it isn’t easy to get right. It requires language facility, physical agility, impeccable timing, and a modicum of restraint. It’s a lot less funny if it’s played for laughs. Two current comic offerings are so conspicuous in their efforts to be amusing that they lose some of their comic edge.
“La Bête” is by definition a difficult undertaking, and once again, the Fritz Theater has to applauded for its willingness to step up to a formidable challenge. The piece is unique and not a little daunting; it’s a modern verse-play, written, in the style of that grand 17th century farceur, Molière, in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. In case you’ve forgotten your high school poetry class, here’s an instructive refresher.
“La Bête seems out of place and out of time:
A play composed entirely in rhyme,
An antic, frantic, boffo, bouffe affair
Written, with sly wit, à la Molière.
A play-within-a-play and so much more
It’s set in France in 1654.
That, my friends, is iambic pentameter. The verse is arch and clever, and the 1990 undertaking marked the playwriting debut of David Hirson. It won comedy and writing awards in New York, L.A. and London, but, with its archaic structure and antique setting, you might think it was a giant retro yawner. Yet in fact, it has a great deal to do with theater and the arts today.
The plot concerns an acting troupe supported by an all-powerful and wealthy Prince/patron. Thinking the group needs a little goosing up, Prince Conti forces upon them one boorish, puffed-up, narcissistic street actor, a Bête if there ever was one (which translates from the French as both a beast and a fool). Ever single-mindedly committed to his artistic vision, Elomire, leader of the troupe, refuses to accept the pompous Valere. To entrap him, Elomire proposes that the whole company help Valere enact his fatuous play, and this will prove to the Prince that he is a doltish incompetent who has no business in a legitimate theater company. Well, things backfire in all sorts of ways, but not before we’re forced to consider the various approaches to acting, the role of compromise in art and the repercussions of being intractable in your viewpoint. Lots of fat to chew on while watching Fred Harlow in a tour-de force performance as the outrageously loquacious and obnoxious Valere.
Unfortunately, he’s hampered by a hyperverbal first act and a virtually total lack of backup. As directed by Tim West (the Theater’s new associate artistic director), the rest of the ten-member cast is simply wallpaper, just set-ups for Valere. Everyone strikes a pose and plays just one note; we get little sense of character and even less of the frantic, “high comic style” called for by the playwright. Only Matt Williams, as the Prince, seems to be in the same play as Harlow/Valere, but he, too, shows little variation or arc in his performance. Some of Harlow’s stage business is quite hilarious, but the flatness around him makes him stand out like Mt. McKinley among molehills.
Now at Lamb’s Players Theatre, the situation is almost the reverse; everyone seems to want to be Mt. McKinley. The set may be spare, but there’s an awful lot of scenery being chewed. The play is “The Sneeze,” eight short pieces by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Michael Frayn, who wrote the sidesplitting “Noises Off.” This show isn’t sidesplitting, but it is humorous at times, and poignant at others. It’s lightweight material, to be sure; Chekhov himself called each of these short pieces “a joke in one act.” But this is a rare occasion to see most of the movers and shakers of Lamb’s Players onstage at once. It doesn’t always work, but it is a real treat to watch Robert and Deborah Smyth performing together. Their hell-raising pas de deux in “The Bear” is worth the price of admission and the trip to Coronado. We need to see Robert act more; he’s a very fine director, but he’s also an enormously engaging and natural actor, and he and his wife play off each other flawlessly. If you always associate tragedy with Chekhov, check out in his sillier side in “The Sneeze.”
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.