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A Pair After Moliere



La Bete

Pegasus Players Theatre and the Buffalo Theatre Ensemble

Celimene and the Cardinal

Court Theatre

What a shame that to find wisdom onstage

One must venture back to a bygone age

When men wore knickers and spoke in couplets

And traveled the stage in goofy doublets.

Theater today is rather static,

The best to be said is that it's erratic.

But to counteract today's modern sleaze

Must we voyage back sev'ral centuries?

Well, for the folks at Pegasus and Court

(No directors named here--let's keep it short)

The answer seems unequivocally yes,

That to go forward we have to regress

And visit Jean-Baptiste Poquelin's France.

You know, the man called Moliere. Ahh, perchance

You have seen the controversial Tartuffe

Or The Miser, butchered under the roof

Of some grim college or community

Center, and seized the opportunity

To flee from the place and solemnly swear,

"Please! No more Tartuffes. Please, no more Moliere."

Perhaps what's needed is a better goal

Than just nostalgia or pleasing Bob Dole

With entertainment so creaky and aged

That none could take offense at what's been staged.

Let's say it quickly; let's give it a try:

If you want to do it, you must say why.

Dave Hirson knows why in his new La Bete,

A brilliant satire that doesn't forget

To address matters contemporary

While indulging in shrewd literary

Games in a dazzling homage to Moliere.

Sad to say that Jacques Rampal does not fare

So well with dated satire of the pope

In his new sequel to The Misanthrope,

Celimene and the Cardinal, which succeeds

As academic exercise but needs

To stop at some point and desp'rately try

To answer the eternal question: Why?

Let's be honest, my friend. Hirson's La Bete

Is annoying as hell. We can't forget

His brains and wit, which are thrust in our face

Ev'ry chance he gets, while making his case

That he can out-Moliere Moliere. He's wrong.

This play is like that classic Broadway song

From Annie Get Your Gun or I Do! I Do!:

"I can do anything better than you!"

That said, let us venture onto the plot,

So trivial that I nearly forgot

Its tale of a 17th-century troupe

Of French court performers. Leading the group

Is ecrivain/philosophe Elomire

Who preaches his art with a strut and a sneer.

A bold spokesman for what's good and what's true,

The character's based on--well, you know who.

(If you can't figure out this pompous ham,

You'll have to unravel the anagram.)

Mostly Moliere, but part of him's Hirson,

Meaning that he's a quite righteous person

Who can at times behave rather badly.

He's not the type who suffers fools gladly.

But then there arrives a writ from the prince

That makes poor Elomire shudder and wince.

He must make room in his troupe for a fool

Named Valere, a man who's really a tool,

A prancing buffoon who needs to be gonged--

His first monologue is a half-hour long.

Like something out of comic opera, he's

A blend of Cher and Isaac Mizrahi.

He's not the type you can simply forget.

He's really a beast (in French, he's "la bete").

He is the source of Elomire's anguish,

Inventing his own new, silly language.

He calls chairs "francescas," and he renames

Tables "caraboombas." Truly he shames

Any who value modesty or taste.

But please, if you will, do not just make haste

Out the door when he calls words "verbobos"

Or makes rhymes like a song by the Go-Gos.

For, though Hirson takes pains to irritate,

There's some deep meaning here that's worth the wait

As he decries concessions artists make

To abandon truth and embrace the fake.

He skewers populist hypocrisy

And the triumph of mediocrity

As represented by Valere's crude art,

Which though aesthetically is only a fart

Exuded by someone gross like Paul Lynde,

Is praised by all as the Lord's holy wind.

And poor Elomire's left out in the cold

As one righteous man who will not be sold

And must live apart, in isolation,

For not kowtowing to the French nation.

Which could stand just as well for art today

In this grand country, the U.S. of A.

Which, of course, is playwright Hirson's point:

That we must think about whom we anoint.

Why do we ignore art, praise Dr. Dre?

And that's why Hirson's play bombed on Broadway.

Despite its wit and brilliant ambition,

It takes an unpopular position.

And besides, beneath the glare of spotlights,

No one wants to see more actors in tights.

Pegasus and Buffalo theaters

Have done a stunning job here, dear readers,

With production values truly top-notch,

As smart and fast paced as Mayor Ed Koch.

One or two actors have a tough time

Keeping the meter and speaking the rhyme,

But whenever the show threatens to stall

Actor Dave Engel makes up for it all.

As breathless Valere, astounding Engel

Could surely have played for Casey Stengel,

Carrying the show for two hours sans cesse.

He's come a long way since E.T.H.S.

With acrobatics and stunning wordplay,

This show's lots more fun than Cirque du Sommeil.

Now let's venture south to gay old Hyde Park

Where bearded professors meet after dark.

I'm sure they've discussed, may even have guessed

What befell Moliere's Celimene and Alceste

Since the author closed the book on their tricks

Way back in sixteen hundred sixty-six.

(Do you wish now that this rhyme scheme would end?

Now you know how I felt the whole weekend.)

Though he is clearly not Moliere's equal,

Jacques Rampal has produced this sequel.

Much of what's here is cerebral nonsense,

This Grump and a Woman: 20 Years Hence.

Some of us prefer to leave up in the air

Questions left open by shrewd old Moliere,

Like the fate of Rhett and Miss O'Hara

In those uncertain days after Tara.

But Rampal insists that we now rehash

And mostly he does his job with panache.

For those who left this pair in confusion

Rampal offers a brand-new conclusion:

That Alceste, having been left in the lurch,

Escaped the world by joining the church.

And Celimene married some silly coot

And had a quartet of children to boot.

Though the dialogue is full of whimsy

The premise here is at best quite flimsy:

We are asked to believe Alceste's returned

Because of the danger that he discerned

In a strange vision (or was it a dream?)

About his long-lost flame--yes, Celimene.

With the air of a slimy professor

He insists he become the confessor

For all of Celimene's sins, which include

Posing for her husband in rather lewd

Sketches upon which sly Alceste pounces,

And then rather rudely he announces

That for the art in which she's paraded

He will have her excommunicated.

Unless, of course, she agrees to "confess"

(Which, you know, in English means "Please undress").

The script is solid but still rather dull.

In all probability it will lull

To sleep those who've forgot Moliere's play,

And those who recall it might sleep anyway.

The play's divided equally between scenes

And soliloquies, which practically means

The structure is a pas de deux. That's right

For dance, but for drama it's just too tight.

Ranjit Bolt's translation of Rampal too

Is rather predictable. In fact you

Keep waiting for some poetry sublime

But he always gives the obvious rhyme.

His meter is strict; it's surely not loose,

Though at times he's as French as Dr. Seuss.

If Rampal's script is just far too stolid,

Court's production is really quite solid.

Despite Rampal's rhyming, one finds solace

In the great acting displayed by Hollis

Resnik, a consummate pro, and her brother

In crime, Kevin Gudahl. Any other

Actors could send this play down the sewer.

But thank God for Gudahl and Resnik, who're

Engaging in their own sequel of sorts:

They did Misanthrope last season at Court.

When I left, to myself I grimly said,

I wish that I had seen that one instead.

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