The first thing to know about Beauty and the Beast, Synetic’s newest fairy tale offering in Crystal City, is not what the production is, but what it isn’t. When buying your tickets, automated messages pop up twice confirming that you understand that this production is NOT a version of the 1991 Disney musical. Rather it is an adaptation of the 18th century French fairy tale. That means no catchy tunes, no bumbling side comedy, and absolutely, positively no singing teapot.
That isn’t to say that the production has no comedy, lighter moments, or cheesiness, but those elements are couched in a darker abode than Disney’s. While the spectacular elements of cel animation and Menken-scribed music are missing from Synetic’s Beauty and the Beast, director Ben Cunis adds his own flair for spectacle with the powerful and intricate dance that made the company famous and a previously unseen (by me, at least) incorporation of shadow play of hands, puppets, and bodies.
Just walking into the space, you can see the elements of fantasy: a silhouetted castle, bohemianly tattered drapery extending into the audience, and a near-psychedelic color palette of purple and green. Here, Set Designer Daniel Pihna really transports the audience into a totally new world that’s at once exciting and scary. By the time the opening sequence hits, where a dark character appears out of nowhere and the prologue is told via shadow puppets, you’re off on an entertaining ride that is narrated from a unique perspective.
Normally, Beauty and the Beast tales focus on either Belle or the Beast as obviously sympathetic, one for her bookish kindness and the other for being a victim of a too-harsh punishment. But this version of the story stipulates that the Beast’s punishment is far from harsh, at least according to the Narrator. The Narrator is named Emmeranne, who was once the lover of the prince, but is now a sort of Fury. Understandable, since the Prince claimed that he was bewitched by her, and, this being medieval France, poor Emmeranne gets burned at the stake.
It’s a bit problematic that this character gets to be the lens by which the audience sees the world. The major question of the show turns from “Will Beauty and Beast get together?” to “Will Emmerane’s revenge get the last word?” In many ways, the audience roots against the Beast, even though he shows moments of silliness and sweetness, because our narrator constantly reminds us that he got her burned alive. Synetic had an opportunity here to create a really deep female character, but they only partially succeeded, since Emmerane is sympathetic, but also patently evil.
The internal confusion and ambivalence in the story is a consistent theme for this production. It can be a good thing, keeping the audience on its toes and making for a good discussion after the show. But it can be a bad thing, too. There’s an entire character whose name, identity and role were a mystery even after the show had ended. Matthew Alan Ward play this character, listed in the program notes as Fantome, who sometimes helps the Beast and sometimes helps Emmeranne, sometimes is seen by other characters and sometimes isn’t, sometimes behaves like a bird and sometimes like a steampunk magician. Fantome is quite useful in that whenever the plot stalls, he gives it a push along, and he gets some truly beautiful moments of dance, but I wish I knew more about his place in this world.
While some of the big arc storytelling has flaws, director/adaptor Ben Cunis, co-adaptor Peter Cunis, and choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili truly have the moment-to-moment storytelling nailed. Beauty and the Beast kept my attention well-occupied throughout the show and there were individual moments of true brilliance, too. The fights were gorgeous, always leaving the audience wanting more, but not too much more. Especially Vato Tsikurishvili, playing the Beast, keeps ferocious pace during the fights, contrasting them with sulkily slow acting moments and very strong mask work. Even though the other titular character, played by Irina Kavsadze, gets a relatively small amount of stage time for the part, she makes consistent choices that always communicate her status as an ingenue.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Closes January 11, 2015
1800 S. Bell Street
1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $45 – $55
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Despite the title of Beauty and the Beast, the two real stars are not Belle or the Beast, but the ensemble and the shadow play. The ensemble busts its collective ass from curtain up to bows in this show, playing a huge number of roles (from scary wolves to candelabra-holding statues)and their synchronicity and energetic tempo keep this show vivid, fast-paced, and fully-fleshed out. Many of the ensemble get secondary roles as well, and they perform them with great aplomb.
But the best reason to see this show is the shadow puppetry, designed by Zana Gankhuyag. The screen the play uses is huge, taking up most of the stage, but each square inch is used by the actors and lighting designer Brittany Diliberto. The specific technique of the shadow puppetry is French, like the story, in a style called ombre chinoises (or Chinese shadows) which feels very much like both animation and fairy tale fantasy. This production uses a combination of bodies and cutouts to create stark black shadow on a pale screen, which also picks up colored light in beautiful halos. The use of lights and screen (not only for puppets, by the way) could be alternately be called clever, intricate, powerful and nostalgic, but the most true descriptor is entertaining.
Entertaining is perhaps the best descriptor for the show as a whole as well. Sure, there were mistakes in story structure, a few too many cheesy moments, and probably too many Under Armor labels visible on the actor’s costumes, but none of those things brought the delightful journey of Beauty and the Beast to a standstill. Synetic just needs someone to keep an eye out for those issues; they’ve got the rest covered.
Note: Synetic Theater recommends Beauty and the Beast for ages 7 and up.
Beauty and the Beast, adapted by Ben Cunis and Peter Cunis . Directed by Ben Cunis .Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili . Featuring Vato Tsikurishvili, Irina Kavsadze, Matthew Alan Ward, Hector Reynoso, Renata Veberyte Loman, Anna Lane, Kathryn Elizabeth Kelly, Joseph Carlson, Katrina Clark, Zana Gankhuyag, Ryan Alan Jones and Chanel Smith . Produced by Synetic Theater . Reviewed by Alan Katz.