President Clinton's 1993 appointment of actress Jane Alexander to head the National Endowment for the Arts was seen by many as a healthy sign for the embattled agency. After all, Alexander had enjoyed a distinguished career in the theater and was the first actual artist to hold the post. But even though Alexander restored respectability to the NEA, she resigned last October after Congress voted to cut her agency's budget in half. In a conciliatory gesture to mainstream lawmakers who objected to the NEA's recognition of controversial artists, Clinton named William Ivey, a figure in Nashville's country-music scene, as his nominee to succeed Alexander. Ivey's Senate confirmation is expected next month, which will no doubt be accompanied by a hearty chorus of "Yahoo!" on Capitol Hill.
Of course, the idea that public taste (or money) influences the content of art is nothing new. Greek playwrights were financed by wealthy citizens appointed by civil magistrates; Italian artists were similarly indebted to patrons such as the notoriously tyrannical Medici family; even the Frenchman Moliere's exploits were more often than not bankrolled by the capricious King Louis XIV. And it's Moliere's storied struggle to preserve the purity of his art while meeting the demands of public taste that's the subject of British playwright David Hirson's La Bete, currently on stage at the Aurora Fox Theatre under the direction of Penny Walrath.
Winner of Britain's Olivier Award for best play in 1992, the 150-minute drama concerns a French acting troupe patterned after Moliere's own band of wandering minstrels. The group's leader, Elomire (Scott Bellot), and his trusted partner, Bejart (Steven L. Moore), are forced by their patron, Prince Conti (William Berry), to tailor the group's repertoire to the vulgar antics of a street performer, Valere (Donald P. Ryan). In order to preserve his acting company's vital state subsidy, Elomire attempts to reconcile his artist's credo with Conti's boulevard tastes. (In real life, Conti was one of Moliere's patrons, and members of the Bejart family were actors in Moliere's troupe as well as his in-laws: He was married to the youngest of the clan.)
However, Elomire finds that obeying Conti's orders is easier said than done. The drama begins with Elomire and Bejart enduring a twenty-minute lecture from the clueless Valere (the "beast" of the title) on the fine art of theater. And even though Elomire tries in vain to stab Valere in the back (as if in answer to our unarticulated wishes, pairs of helpful hands offer daggers to him through portals located on either side of the stage), the talentless buffoon yammers on. And on. In this case, though, the problem clearly lies with the actor Ryan's monotonous delivery as opposed to the character Valere's boorish opinions; several opening-night audience members were overheard agreeing with the exasperated Elomire when he finally sputtered, "I've listened to you speechifying for what seems like a century in hell!"
Nonetheless, the stubborn Conti states that he believes Valere has genuine talent. After a brief discussion, he orders Elomire's troupe to perform Valere's play, a slapstick farce that features Valere as a Harlequin-costumed character. Prince Conti roars with laughter and approval at Valere's cheap theatrics (as did, incidentally, most of the people in the audience at the Aurora Fox), including an obligatory rubber-chicken joke. But the chucklehead's clowning only serves to fuel Elomire's palpable outrage; rather than knuckle under to the courtly principle of "art by consensus," Elomire ultimately decides to leave the troupe, declaring, "Better pauper prince than wealthy toad."
Walrath's briskly paced production is faithful in sensibility and tone to the play's period setting. Especially impressive is her work with the actors in the always-dicey area of verse-speaking (Hirson's play is written in rhyming couplets that are scored in iambic pentameter). To their credit, the performers properly remain true to the pulse and beat of the language while studiously avoiding the singsong cadence of nursery rhyme. In addition, Bruce McInroy's wondrous wigs and costumes enhance the actors' execution of seventeenth-century behavior such as bows and curtsies.
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However, Walrath's curatorial homage to the play's historical roots sometimes seems more appropriate to the two-dimensional, idealized world of French painting than it does to the complex, multi-faceted environment inhabited by these earthy bon vivants. Part of the problem lies with Hal Terrance's flat-as-a-crepe set, which could use a few levels and stair units to contribute some much-needed visual variety and depth (though not the norm in seventeenth-century France, playhouses with multi-level stages are nevertheless depicted in a few French paintings of the period). As it is, the actors often stand for several seconds with their backs to the audience and sometimes block our view of other performers while they're speaking.
Technical problems and a talky first act notwithstanding, the energetic performers sow plenty of thought-provoking seeds throughout the production. All they lack is the professional polish that time and experience will one day provide. Strangely enough, the same was once true of Moliere, whose initial attempts at success in the big city constituted an abysmal failure. After touring the provinces for thirteen years with a group of itinerant actors, the playwright returned to Paris in 1658 and took the city by storm. Thereafter, he was awarded a handsome subsidy by the king, who appointed him an official court entertainer for the rest of his life. The semi-professional actors of the Aurora Fox can't hope for that sort of reward--but they could use a few "yahoos" of their own.
La Bete, through April 4 at the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax, 361-2910.