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‘La Bete’ director tutors U. students

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For guest director Geoffrey Sherman, his work on this week's Babcock Theatre production of David Hirson's award-winning 1991 comedy, "La Bete," marks the first time in years that he's been involved with students, not professionals.

A London native who's lived in the United States for nearly 25 years, Sherman has directed dozens of professional stage and television productions — from soap operas in New York City to regional companies from coast to coast. Currently, he's winding up a lengthy stint as artistic director of the Meadow Brook Theatre in Rochester, Mich. — a company similar in size and scope to Utah's Pioneer Theatre Company.

In fact, it was PTC's artistic director, Charles Morey, who was instrumental in bringing Sherman back to Salt Lake City, as part of a newly implemented project to involve more professionals in the University of Utah's Actor Training Program.

Morey and Sherman have worked with each other's companies over the years. Sherman directed PTC's productions of "Inherit the Wind" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" shortly after Morey joined PTC.

And Morey directed Meadow Brook's production of his own play, "The Three Musketeers," which marked the debut of Sherman as artistic director there.

"I find it very interesting to work with young actors,' said Sherman — who has previously directed such performers as Cherry Jones (in "I Am a Camera") and Anthony Hopkins. "There are no preconceptions they bring to the work. You're working with a cleaner slate than usual, and sometimes the productions are even more interesting than when you're working with seasoned pros."

"La Bete" will play Jan. 16-27 in the Babcock Theatre, on the lower level of Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre building.

Award-winning playwright Hirson has loosely based his script on Moliere's French classic "The Misanthrope" — including the technique of rhyming couplets, which Moliere also used.

Sherman is very impressed with the quality of talent in the U.'s Actor Training Program.

"The way 'La Bete' is constructed, there is a lot of weight placed on one actor — the person who plays Valere/La Bete — and Joshua Grant has turned out to be very, very good.

"The entire cast has been a delight to work with. The lead actors — and you have to include Jeremy Rishe (Elomire) and Marjorie Lopez Tibbs (the Princess) — have been phenomenally good," he said.

Other cast members include Sarah Jones, B. Joe Rogan, Shannon Hollinger, Jason Armbruster, Britany Dean, Logan Black and Elizabeth Alexandra Williams.

Sherman is also pleased with scenery and costuming for the production. Brendra Van der Wiel of PTC's costume shop has designed period attire for the show. Andrea Bush, a student in the U.'s theater department, is handling the scenery.

The setting for "La Bete" is the estate of Princess Conti in Pezenas, Languedoc, France, in 1654. "The play is about the position of art in society and patronage — who and why do they support the arts — and that particular discussion has been going on for centuries and will continue well beyond our lifetimes as well," said Sherman.

He added that when "La Bete" played on Broadway, "every actor in town wanted to audition for it. A lot of actors I knew went into it. During the previews, my wife saw it and loved it."

Then the reviews came out, and they were very mixed. Sherman said the New York Times review could best be described as "a hatchet job." Largely due to the Times review, the production closed after a fairly short run. (However, it also won Britain's coveted Olivier Award for Comedy of the Year and went on to garner five Tony nominations, six Drama Desk nominations and the Outer Critics Circle Award for "best playwright.")

But "La Bete" has gone on to have an afterlife. It's been produced by several regional companies.

"Flash forward to 10 years later and Chuck Morey asked me if I knew about 'La Bete,' " said Sherman. "I read the script and realized then how difficult it is. It's very funny and also very, very vulnerable. It's written in the style of Moliere, and I think that it's possible, if you take it the wrong way, you'll have trouble with it."

And he made one minor change in the casting — changing the gender of the patron from a prince to a princess, for the overall balance of the play.

Sherman has been responsible for the world and national premieres of several plays, including the late Alice Childress' "Moms" and David Hare's "Knuckle." During his tenure in Michigan, he won "best production" and "best director" awards for such productions as "Angels in America," "Arcadia" and "The Rocky Horror Show."

E-mail: ivan@desnews.com