‘La Belle’: a beauty of a Beauty

Imago's bold and charming "La Belle: Lost in the Automaton" retells the age-old "Beauty and the Beast" as a steampunk vaudeville (with puppets)

The tale, with its many themes and variations, is hundreds of years old, at least. A woman, an embodiment of purity and innocence, is forced into the company of a frightening Other, something primal, whether animal or spirit, something dark and debased. Yet there is recognition and love, trial and transformation. Hidden natures are revealed. Opposites balance and resolve.

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve crystallized it in 1740 as La Belle et la Bête. It may be best known by many from Jean Cocteau’s luminous, numinous 1946 film of that same name.  To many more, its image is fixed as a Disney product, 1991’s animated mass-market musical Beauty and the Beast.

Jim Vadala and Justine Davis: the beast and the beauty aboard ship. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Perhaps future generations, though, will think of the story and imagine not forests and castles but the grimy engine room of a coal-powered steamship. Their memories will be filled not with Disney’s storybook colors or Cocteau’s poetic cinematic effects but with a more immediate kind of artistic magic: puppets and automatons and actors on a stage.

They’ll think of Imago.

La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton is Imago Theatre’s new adaptation of the  “Beauty and the Beast” story, just opened for a five-week run at the company’s near-eastside home, and it’s a beauty indeed. Bold in concept, surprising and delightful to the eye, and utterly charming, it retells the familiar fairy romance within a framework that might be described as steampunk vaudeville. Deftly blending ingenious low-tech stagecraft and a wry, contemporary sensibility, it features just two actors, plus two unseen puppeteers, amid a broad array of visually arresting puppets (rod, shadow, banraku…), moving parts and mechanical effects. Yet amidst all the gears and rods and pulleys, all the characters made of cloth and papier mâché, a sweet heart beats.

As reimagined by Imago co-founders Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad and novice stage writer Devin Stinson, the story takes place  circa 1920, in that aforementioned engine room, on a steamship called La Belle. There we meet Sam Stoker, the sooty yet good-natured soul who shovels the coal, with only a teddy bear to keep him company. When the ships gets suddenly storm-tossed (“It can be a bit fickle, for just a trickle,” as Sam puts it), in wanders one of his betters from above decks, a sweet young thing called Lady Rose — her name a nod to the rose picked from the Beast’s garden in the original tale. Sam and Rose meet cute, albeit with a kind of touching tentativeness, a purposefully awkward, herky-jerky comic rhythm that is a Triffle specialty. Filthy but kind, Sam is our Beast stand-in, while Rose, almost bumbling in her naiveté, is our unusual Beauty.

Beautiful beastly things in the automaton. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Sam has made a magic castle of his own within his engine room, collecting the detritus left behind on the ship and turning the materials into trunks full of fantastic creations, likenesses from his favorite story, which is, of course, “Beauty and the Beast.” Rose knows and loves the story too, and together they retell it, acting it out with and through the puppets, even as they themselves undergo a facsimile of its trials and transformations.

This clever, nesting-doll adaptation was nearly three years and a quarter-million dollars in the making, the end result — one hopes — of a fitful search for a new artistic direction.

From its founding in the late 1970s as an offshoot of Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre, Imago has concentrated much of its energy and output on a distinct style of mask theater — wordless vignettes featuring performers fully costumed, most often as playfully and/or poignantly anthropomorphized animals. Even as it branched out through the years to do avant-garde-leaning takes on conventional drama (such as Mouawad’s famous production of Sartre’s No Exit, performed on a constantly shifting, tilting platform) and varied experiments such as Triffle’s oddball quasi-musical comedies and Mouawad’s “Opera Beyond Words” movement-theater series, the company continued to hone its “creature” shows, Frogz and ZooZoo, whose national tours and hometown holiday revivals kept the Imago ship afloat.

Eventually, the theatrical presenters who booked Imago nationally wanted something fresh, and Mouawad and Triffle also longed for a new form, something that could accommodate their restless inventiveness yet also serve up the kind of family-friendly accessibility of those hopping frogs and preening pussycats.

In 2012, they hatched a plan to create a new troupe under the Imago umbrella and began working on a style of movement theater more influenced by dance and clowning, with thoughts of a 2013 fall debut and hopes that the new troupe might grow to take over the creatures’ touring work.  But devising dramatically and emotionally resonant pieces in the style proved every bit as difficult and time-consuming as it was with the mask creatures. By the next year they’d hit upon the idea of adapting La Belle et la Bête with automatons and an industrial-age design aesthetic. The show originally was scheduled to debut more than two years ago. As Brett Campbell recently reported for ArtsWatch, that plan, too, ran into some snags.

Vadala and Davis, unfolding a tale within a tale. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Having finally arrived, La Belle is a fitting triumph. It delivers that new form even as it returns the company, in a way, to the bosom of the puppetry scene. It shares something with the creature features in its fascination with transformations and the revealing of hidden essences, as well as in the simple joy of visual wonderment and the emotional potency of theatrical artifice.

Then there’s what it does with and for its fairy-tale source material. It delivers a vivid rendition of the classic story, while the framing device of the stoker and the lady serves as both an echo of that story, sharpening inherent elements such as class distinctions and sexual attraction, and as a nod to the power of storytelling itself.

And it does all this with a tone that’s often whimsical but never cutesy, finding that sweet spot of family entertainment that’s really for the adults, even if the kids are so enthralled that they won’t notice.

Great credit is due to the actors, Jim Vadala and Justine Davis, who have the tricky task of acclimating us to this very particular story world. Vadala, fresh off a powerhouse performance for Defunkt Theatre as a meth-addicted marine back on the home front in Taylor Mac’s HIr, endears himself from the outset here with an understated Little Tramp-like physicality and vaguely addlepated air. Davis masters the quicksilver comic rhythms and emotional ellipses that Triffle developed with actress Danielle Vermette several years ago in a series of strange little shows (The Dinner, Backs Like That, Splat) I took to calling “misfit musicals,” yet balances them with enough of the conventional-pretty-romantic-heroine to make for a winsome eccentricity.

Those two share the puppeteering, but the heavy lifting is done behind the scenes by  Lance Woolen and Erin Nicole Chmela. Their work dovetails nicely with Kyle Delamarter’s sound design to provide the sense of a ship at sea, and while the occasional songs are slight, the instrumental scoring adds a suitably romantic air without making things goopy.

Imago has sunk so much into this show that — unless it’s somehow an undeserved flop — it surely will be remounted for years. That will provide the chance to address the few weak points here, principally an intermission that feels arbitrary and structurally pointless (in a show with a brisk 65 minutes stage time at that) and a too-brief second act that at times feels rushed and even disconnected.

But don’t take such a quibble as any excuse to wait. Imago’s La Belle is a creature of a rare and wonderful sort, a show you may well want to see over and over again, both to marvel at its graceful mechanics and to soak in its symbolic resonances about the human, animal and spiritual in us all.

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La Belle: Lost in the Automaton continues through Jan. 9 at Imago Theatre, 17 S.E. Eighth Avenue. Ticket and schedule information here.

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