At AXIS, an academic oddity in rhyme

April 28, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

I have a dog who's such a happy little fool that even when you reprimand her, she wags her tail in glee, delighted merely by the attention. That's also the mind-set of the protagonist of David Hirson's "La Bete," which is receiving its Baltimore premiere at AXIS Theatre.

After being described as "a talentless, obnoxious pile of goo," Valere, the "beast" of the title, replies: "You've honored me tonight by finding fault!"

This exasperating character -- exuberantly played by Richard Jackson -- is the most notable invention in Hirson's odd and fairly academic script.

Written entirely in rhymed verse, the play is set in France, roughly at the time of Moliere. One of its more obvious academic jokes is that Valere's chief antagonist -- the character who utters the "pile of goo" line -- is named Elomire, an anagram of Moliere.

The plot focuses on the conflict between Elomire and Valere, a boorish street performer who has won the favor of the royal patron of Elomire's prestigious theater company. The play pits art against mediocrity, integrity against compromise. It's as studied as a dissertation, but it does have a crackerjack lead role.

As Valere, Jackson is required to deliver an approximately 30-minute monologue -- all in verse, of course. He does this not only at manic speed, but with accompanying manic behavior. He skips, he prances, he barks like a dog, licks the floor and at one point even plucks his nostril hairs while expounding on the subject of refinement.

Jackson's Valere is a versifying motor mouth, so delighted by the sound of his own voice that he doesn't realize that Elomire and his sidekick Bejart are literally trying to kill him every time he turns his back. It's a taxing role, but Jackson not only has it under control, he seems to be enjoying himself.

For that matter, director Brian Klaas' entire cast makes an impressive effort to turn this heavy-handed exercise into a lively romp. Although Marty McDonough's Elomire would be a more effective foil for Valere if he were a little less histrionic, his sincerity is apparent. And as Elomire's royal patron, Edwyn Witnay Williams comically alternates between a hail-fellow-well-met attitude and chilly noblesse oblige.

AXIS had announced "La Bete" -- which had a brief Broadway run two season ago -- as its inaugural production last fall, but temporarily lost the rights to a Washington theater. Though it seems difficult to imagine two theaters competing for this pretentious script, it is a challenging acting vehicle. AXIS' actors are up to the challenge -- would that they had a more worthy text.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "La Bete."

Where: AXIS Theatre, Meadow Mill, 3600 Clipper Mill Road.

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. matinees Sundays. Through May 23.

Tickets: $10 and $12.

Call: (410) 243-5237.

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