Imago Theatre is at a turning point. For 35 years, Portland’s most original theater company has specialized in making something beautiful out of not much: some masks, some movement, some music, often using no words or sets at all. The result: the long-running, enormously popular mask shows Frogz and ZooZoo, and dozens of other magical theatrical creations.
But after more than three decades, Imago founders Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad decided the time had to retire those warhorses. Last summer, the couple announced they were selling the former Southeast Portland Masonic lodge that’s long served as Imago’s headquarters, performing and rehearsal space, and prop and costume shop. This weekend, Imago opens its biggest, riskiest venture ever. Given Imago’s flair for dazzling visual imagery and movement, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton, which runs December 9-January 8, is likely to be a beauty. But for its creators, it’s been a bit of a beast.
Without their standbys, Triffle and Mouawad knew that promoters and presenters needed a new family-friendly production that could draw the large audiences whose tickets financed the couple’s more experimental work. “We were looking for a new form that we could dabble in for family audiences after working in mask theater since the inception of the company in the late ’70s,” Mouawad recalls. “We found that in La Belle.
They knew the great French writer/director Jean Cocteau classic 1946 film of the fairy tale had that rare universal appeal to both children and adults — a story with Frogz’s family-friendly mix of sophistication and simplicity. Mouawad and Triffle based their adaptation not on that movie or the Disney production or any of the many other movie, TV and literary versions of Beauty and the Beast but on French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original 1740 novel.
In 2013 they began working with writer Devin Stinson, who had a background in hip hop; and trip hop composers Elissa and Amanda Payne. After nine months they looked at what they had wrought and realized that it didn’t feel like an Imago show.
“We were quite ambitious,” Mouawad remembers. “It had grown into this big Shakespeare production with eight to ten characters. Reality set in after we realized how complex the execution was going to be.”
They threw out the script, postponed the originally scheduled 2014 premiere, and started over with a new outline involving just two characters. In the summer of 2014,the team banged out the framing story of Sam Stoker (played by Jim Vadala), who works in a 1920s steamship engine room, and Lady Rose (Justine Davis), whose romance proceeds in parallel with the original La Belle story. The rest of the characters would be portrayed by puppets, and Imago would create a magical environment for their story.
“Intertwining two different worlds that become one was a bit Imago-esque,” Mouawad explains. “Design has always been in the forefront of what Carol and I do. All the design elements should have an Imago-esque flavor. Every design element should support the story and have a physical connection with the audience.”
It sounds a bit Terry Gilliam-esque as well, and in creating La Belle’s two intersecting worlds, the team soon confronted the artistic ambitiousness that sometimes drove that great film director over his budget.
Building the Perfect Beast
Construction commenced in January 2015. Building La Belle turned into a project of unprecedented (for Imago) complexity and expense — more than a quarter million dollars, some of it crowd-sourced. La Belle sports a lot more moving parts and more collaboration than Triffle and Mouawad had ever experienced: Stinson, three composers (the Paynes and songwriter Lydia Ooghe), engineers, fabricators, illustrators, painters, some with experience in other Portland creative ventures that combine adult- and kid-friendly appeal, like the Laika movie animation studio and Michael Curry Studios, known among other things for fabricating the fantastic puppet-creatures in the smash stage version of The Lion King.
“This is a big challenge for Imago,” Mouawad frets. “After so many years of working on Frogz and ZooZoo, we knew that if things started looking too complex we shouldn’t go there — and we led our selves right there. Terry Gilliam gets so complex in his rich use of intricacy that it becomes a gigantic challenge. I’m trying to work our way out of that challenge.”
In such unknown territory, some rejiggerings were inevitable. For example, relying entirely on mechanical puppets proved too stiff, and Mouawad and Triffle wound up ditching most of the mechanics and using human operators to simulate the automaton. Some contraptions broke and had to be fixed or rethought. They needed more time to design both intersecting worlds, but with a 2015 national tour of Frogz approaching, they were running out of time. La Belle was postponed again.
Imago was still putting the finishing touches on the sets as rehearsals began in October 2016, giving the company plenty of breathing room to iron out the wrinkles and accommodate the complexities. But just as rehearsals began, another complication: Mouawad’s 96-year-old mother, Helen, died. While Mouawad’s father, who’s 85, was “the family clown and he would have gone into theater if given the proper opportunities when he was brought up, my mother was always straight man to my dad and never let him get away with anything,” Mouawad remembers. “They both embodied a kind of comedic and smart repartee with one another and others. Her sharpness as the ‘straight man,’ I learned from her. From my dad I learned how to please a crowd.”
His parents’ story echoes through La Belle’s frame: with Lady Rose beguiled by the magical effects Sam creates, they fall in love, and together they play out the story of Beauty and the Beast.
After 21 months of production work and two and a half years of development, Imago’s new world neared completion by fall 2016. The set — “a kinetic playground” — is a giant ship with revolving water wheels, pumps, steam whistles, and automata: clockwork puppets. A steamer trunk transforms into a giant music box. Fabrication director Lance Woolen and mechanical engineer Roger Nelson crafted complex gear systems. Think Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
“It’s like an animation,” Mouawad says. “The complexity might not be evident when you see it. Every little effect takes forever to make, but it goes by so quickly.”
With the theater building likely to sell soon, it’s easy to see this production as a culmination of Imago’s rich, three-decade history. “I don’t think we’ve left any genre behind that we have not romped in – comedic and dramatic theatre, movement, mask, puppetry, shadow theatre, song and experimentation,” Mouawad wrote in a press release. “Our goal is to create a moment-by-moment visual playground, keeping the young ones engaged while taking older ones and adults on a visceral and romantic journey.”
Freed from the responsibilities of theater space management, Imago will continue making family-friendly theater, possibly working with a single collaborator on future projects. As for their “adult” work, “Carol will continue to write idiosyncratic clown oddities and I’ll continue to dabble in three or four areas,” Mouawad says, including his fascinating movement-based “Opera Beyond Words” series, fusion projects like his recent plays based on Yukio Mishima’s work, and classic adaptations like Imago’s recent Harold Pinter and Eugene O’Neill productions. Mouawad is also directing two contemporary operas by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang for Portland Opera this summer.
But that’s all in the future. Right now, they’re focusing on bringing the beautifully baroque La Belle home. After two-plus years of dealing with its challenges and complexities, Mouawad says, he’s craving something simpler. “In retrospect,” he laughs, “I’m ready to do a show with only a napkin!”
Imago Theatre’s La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton runs December 9 through January 8 at Imago Theatre, 17 SE Eighth Ave. Portland. Tickets online or at 503.231.9581 or TicketsWest.com 503.224.8499. A shorter version of this story appears in ArtsWatch’s partner publication, Artslandia.
Want to read more about Oregon theater? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!