‘La Bete:’ Gorged on stanzas

Rhyming couplets and curly fright wigs and lots of facial mugging are the kind of conceits more beloved by theater-folk than theatergoers. Actors are trained on classics like Moliere; hamming it up onstage as a fop is a rite of passage.

If you like that kind of thing, I suppose La Bete at Theatre 3 is about as good as you’re likely to get. The conundrum is: Why would you like that kind of thing?

La Bete is a structural nightmare, a play about actors who hate other actors … and playwrights and critics and, to an extent, audiences. Elomire (Jakie Cabe, pictured left) is the lead actor-writer of his royal troupe and resents having the blowhard actor Valere (Bradley Campbell, pictured right) forced on him by his patron, Princess Conti (Georgia Clinton, pictured top).

You don’t get much more of a plot than that in Act 1, which is dedicated to highlighting the vocal skill of Valere — he has an uninterrupted 20-minute monologue that Campbell modulates masterfully. His Valere is a flouncy boor — imagine Zach Galifianakis in pantaloons — both insufferable and the saving grace of the show. Campbell and Clinton seem to be the only ones who don’t get cornered by the couplets, turning dialogue into the sing-songy patter of reading Dr. Seuss to children at bedtime, a sin especially committed by Cabe (It’s not a pretty show, either, with the cast swathed in costumes that look like Carol Burnett’s hand-me-downs from her Went with the Wind sketch.)

The playwright, David Hirson, has some modestly interesting observations about the tension between art and popular entertainment and the need to strike a balance between them. But he slathers on so much extraneous nonsense (a maid who only speaks in one-syllable words rhyming in “Oooh” is the most inane) that the message is lost. Maybe he’s challenging us to see La Bete as the compromise between art and commerce; instead, it seems more like showcase for Campbell, ranting in the comic wilderness.

— A.W.J.

Theatre 3,
2800 Routh St. in the Quadrangle.
Through Jan 14.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 16, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Sex & a single girl


LOVE ACTUALLY | A prostitute (Natalie Young) toys with two men (Alex Organ, Drew Wall).

Love triangles and dark turns in ‘Red Light Winter’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

I wouldn’t call Red Light Winter the most enjoyable 2-1/2 hours I’ve spent at the theater recently, but it certainly ranks among the most memorable. I mean both in the best sense: This is serious theater full of ideas and deep emotion and handled with a power and sensitivity that can be arresting. It’s also a brutal mindfuck that feels borne of genuine ache.

Matt (Drew Wall) is a tortured playwright vacationing with his best friend Davis (Alex Organ) in Amsterdam. During the wordless opening sequence, we see Matt seized with such pain he makes a lame, failed attempt at suicide. Then Davis arrives with Christina (Natalie Young), a prostitute from the city’s famed red light district, who agrees to sleep with Matt to get him out of his doldrums.

What is intended by all parties as a meaningless shag, though, escalates into a complex love triangle, as Matt becomes smitten with Christina (by Act 2, it has reached the point of obsession) and Christina finds she holds undeniable feelings for Davis, who is himself married to Matt’s ex-fiancee. All that’s missing is Jerry Springer.

On paper, Red Light Winter might sound like a Hollywood romantic comedy, but despite a strong thread of humor, it’s a dark, fatalistic view of love.

The greatest weakness of the play is one of its essential conceits: The relationship between Matt and Davis. Davis is such a amazing prick, so effortlessly evil and self-involved, you cannot imagine the circumstances that would have led him to befriend Matt in the first place. We all have youthful friends we have outgrown, and have seen those types who bully their ways into the lives of weaker men, but those relationships, however dysfunctional, need to feel rooted in a shared past, a symbiosis where each feeds an emptiness in the other. It’s basically the only relationship Neil LaBute can write.

But there’s no hint of that here; when Matt describes Davis as “like a brother to me,” it rings hollow — family you’re born with, but why hang out with abusive assholes? Why does he keep Davis close him? And if they truly are so close, why is Davis surprised by Matt’s fixation on Christina?

The play’s own self-referentiality doesn’t help. This is a play about a guy writing a play about the events of the play. It’s difficult not to read a degree of autobiography into Adam Rapp’s script, which basically presents us as an audience with the dilemma of the unreliable narrator: Could the real Davis be this bad? Or the real Christina this self-destructive? Or the real Matt this fragile and victimized?

As fundamental as these shortcomings are, ultimately they do not detract significantly from the skillful handling of the rest of the material. Organ is infuriatingly effective, using his insincere, Palin-esque demagoguery to emotionally rape those around him. He uses coarseness and promiscuity as badges of honor, degrading people with his insulting, reductionist language. It’s a testament to Organ’s performance that more than once, you wanna step out of your seat, walk on stage and kick him in the nuts.

But the heavy lifting of the play is borne on the backs of Wall and Young. Wall’s always felt like a tightly-wound spring on stage, his nervous energy burning off all fat until he’s left with a lean, translucent frame from which his id is ready to burst. This is his most sophisticated role, and he’s excellent. Young, who resembles Maggie Gyllenhaal, has an amazing stage presence, her sadness drawing you in. Together they share a stark, naked (literally) intimacy that includes the most frank, explicit onstage sex since Avenue Q.

Regan Adair’s direction is unrushed and visceral, letting the action build and play out silently but with a stinging sense of desperation. Red Light Winter isn’t easy to watch, but you can’t look away.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas