Feast of Fools

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Feast of Fools

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Two giant personalities, who also happen to be fools, are made even larger this month on two of L.A.'s smaller stages. First, Valere, the main character in David Hirson's 1991 play La B--te. Valere is a street performer in 17th century France. Valere is also a fool--but he's an ambitious, gregarious, self-obsessed fool who overwhelms anyone who tries to impede or improve his musings.

The Sacred Fools Theatre Company deserves a medal of some kind for its revival of La B--te--not because of the acting or directing, though both the cast and staging are strong, but because they've put on a play attacking a society that allows a fool to triumph without inserting a single Bush joke into the show.

Hirson's play is not political, but it is about the politics of art--theater, primarily--and how the form is being debased by the influence of popular entertainment. Valere is the symbol of lazy amateurism while another character, named Elomire, stands for artistic integrity (Elomire is an anagram for Moli--re, whose classic French farces are Hirson's obvious inspiration).

La B--te is a brilliant play, but brilliant in the worst sense of the word. Each line exists not to reveal character or further an idea, but rather to remind us of the author's talents. Hirson's love of his own wit makes Oscar Wilde seem downright shy.

The infamous Broadway production of La B--te closed less than two weeks after opening night. Reports suggest that besides the play's length and hauteur, the actor playing Valere--who has a 25-minute soliloquy, in rhymed verse--was not up to the verbal demands of the role. This is not the case here. Dan Mailley makes the part more believable and entertaining than it should be; he also succeeds in making the fool seem timeless. His Valere feels modern, as if he could walk off the stage and into a Hollywood pitch meeting, say, or a Washington policy session, and do just fine.

Alan Ayckbourn's 1985 play A Chorus of Disapproval is another play about a fool who joins a theatrical troupe. Guy Jones, as his name suggests, is a bland chap in provincial England who auditions for the local musical (John Gay's The Beggar's Opera) and stumbles into the lead role. Guy should be the main fool in Chorus, but in Odyssey Theatre Company's revival, he's upstaged by another fool, Dafydd Llewellyn. This happens early in the play, when Dafydd, the troupe's delusional director, performs Guy's audition song for him (in Welsh, no less), but it also happens throughout the production, as actor Matthew Elkins (as Dafydd) grandly steals every scene he's in.

Ayckbourn's comedy is about personalities--big and small--who are drawn to Community Theater. As befitting such a topic, the show has a relaxed, anecdotal quality. Often, A Chorus of Disapproval seems like little more than a collection of amusing types Ayckbourn has observed in his long regional theater career--with a few scenes from The Beggar's Opera used to provide structure and counterpoint.

It wouldn't surprise me if David Hirson spent more time on one of La B--te's more difficult rhymed couplets than Ayckbourn spent writing the entirety of A Chorus of Disapproval; but it's a tribute to the veteran British playwright that his light entertainment is more insightful than Hirson's virtuoso tome.

La B--te puts dramatic art on a pedestal, and calls for the damnation of the Valere's and Dafydd's of the world; whereas Chorus, wisely toasts their folly. Leads Dan Mailley and Matthew Elkins offer memorable performances in these scrappy local productions--performances that belie Hirson's call for artistic purity. If anything, they further support Ayckbourn's view that for better or for worse, the foolish bravery of upstart dreamers like Valere and Dafydd is what keeps theater alive and interesting.

A Chorus of Disapproval continues through August 27 at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, La B--te runs through August 5 at the Sacred Fools Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.