‘La Belle’ steams back

Imago Theatre's mechanically marvelous steampunk-vaudeville retelling of "The Beauty and the Beast" returns from the road for a hometown run

It’s a Monday afternoon in early spring, and the road warriors are back in town. “I don’t know,” Jerry Mouawad says, just a trifle wearily. “We’ve probably played a thousand venues across the country.”

That covers a few decades and a few shows, from Whistlestop, Anystate to the New Victory Theatre on Broadway. Mostly, it covers variations over the years of Imago Theatre’s splendid family shows Frogz, Biglittlethings, and ZooZoo, and a little bit of Mouawad’s conceptually radical, tilted-stage production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And in the past year it’s included Imago’s newest ravishing visual spectacle, La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton.

Jim Vadala, Justine Davis: love in miniature. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

La Belle, which opened at Imago to rapturous reviews in December 2016, has had small East Coast and West Coast tours in the ensuing months, including an engagement in November in Santa Rosa, California, at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, where it was one of the first shows to play in the reopened hall after last year’s devastating wildfires destroyed much of the arts center and surrounding town. Now it’s back for another hometown run, opening Friday at Imago and continuing through April 29. If you haven’t seen it, here’s your chance. If you have, chances are you’ll want to catch it again. As Marty Hughley noted in his ArtsWatch review of the premiere: “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.”

La Belle, which Mouawad and his partner and company cofounder Carol Triffle developed beginning in 2013 with writer Devin Stinson and a crack team of designers and fabricators over an intense three-year period, is their take on the Beauty and the Beast legend, a process that took them back past Disney and Cocteau to Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 literary version La Belle et la Bête, and then forward again to the 1920s and the engine room of a steamship called La Belle.

Lady Rose is startled. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

It unspools twin tales, the first of the legend itself, and the second the emerging story of its unlikely narrators – an engine tender named Sam Stoker, who’s built a magical miniature world from things left behind by passengers, and a young woman passenger named Lady Rose, who wanders in during a storm at sea and finds herself fascinated. “Bold in concept, surprising and delightful to the eye, and utterly charming, [La Belle] retells the fairy romance within a framework that might be described as steampunk vaudeville,” Hughley wrote. “Deftly blending 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, bunraku …), 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.”

Getting it to that sweet heartbeat was arduous. Triffle, Mouawad, and Stinson spent a year putting together a script replete with subplots and supporting characters, then threw it out. “We had a lot of narrative,” Triffle explains. “It felt like Imago Shakespeare.” The team began again, on a narrower focus (Triffle: “What if it’s just this guy pulling this stuff out of his suitcase?”) that cut the cast to just two actors: Jim Vadala as Stoker, Justine Davis as Rose, plus two mostly unseen puppeteers, Lance Woolen and Erin Nicole Chimela. “We finally came around to setting it in the engine room of a steamship, because that represents passion,” Mouawad says. “A little like Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape.” Opening was postponed three times. The budget grew: Developing and fabricating La Belle cost more than a quarter-million dollars, a virtual drop in the Broadway bucket but an enormous outlay for Imago, which has always operated lean and mean. “It’ll take a few years to recoup the costs,” Mouawad says. Three to four months were spent on fabrication of the complex set and mechanical figures, much of it done by gifted craftworkers from the Laika animation studio; Michael Curry Productions, whose many projects have included the fantastical physical world of the Broadway version of The Lion King; and Portland Center Stage. The actors spent nine months full-time working with the development team, and then another ten weeks in rehearsal. “We will never create a show like this again,” Mouawad comments. “This tapped all our resources.”

We’re sitting in the upper-level ballroom of the Imago building on a new/old stretch of close-in East Side Portland, just south of Burnside Street and across the street from KBOO community radio and the retro-chic Jupiter Hotel. Triffle and Mouawad are here. A little while later the actor Todd Van Voris, who starred in Mouawad’s 2016 Imago production of O’Neill’s Hughie and now works part-time for the company, drops in and sits down. Conversation ranges far and wide, from the company’s history to the fall of traditional media to the purpose of criticism to real estate prices and the changing neighborhood. Imago, which Triffle and Mouawad founded in 1979, moved into this old brick building around 1984 and bought it in 1992; it remains their retirement investment. They’d been looking for a rehearsal space when a real estate agent showed them the big upper level ballroom and asked, “Will this do?” “Our jaws just dropped,” Mouawad remembers. It was a different, grittier East Side at the time. On the main floor, where the lobby and performance space are now, was an Alcoholics Anonymous club. A restaurant was in the basement. A surface parking lot was on the side of the building (Imago has recently leased it to the Jupiter Hotel for customer use).

Mouawad has a large laptop computer open on the table, with a video of the premiere production running on it. Imago’s distinctive style has long been distinguished by a sharply honed, carefully exaggerated physical performance style combined with startlingly rich design, and even watching it on video it’s clear that La Belle carries the tradition forward. The colors, the movement, the colossally reimagined physical world are startling and seductive even in pixel form: It doesn’t take much to imagine them popping into intimate 3D life onstage. It’s also clear that despite the familiarity of its created world, this is a bigger, more complex project than anything Imago’s done in the past. “Intertwining two different worlds that become one was a bit Imago-esque,” Mouawad told ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell for a December 2016 story on the building of La Bete. “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.” Campbell described part of the mechanical wizardry central to the telling of the tale: “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.”

Vadala and the riders, rushing along. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Much of Imago’s performance style is built on the physical-theater and movement approaches of Jacques Lecoq, the late, great French mime, actor, and teacher, with whom Triffle studied for three years over two stretches. Lecoq had a strong background in gymnastics as well as commedia dell’arte (he worked for several years in Italy with Dario Fo), and that sort of centered, highly adaptable physicality was a cornerstone of his theater. His many students ranged from physical comedians such as Avner the Eccentric and Sacha Baron Cohen to directors and writers such as Steven Berkoff and Yasmina Reza to designer/choreographers such as Julie Taymor and actors such as Geoffrey Rush. You could take Lecoq with you onto the street or into the performance hall: A kind of coiled energy, explosive yet efficient, was part of the package.

Such adaptability has been an essential element of shows such as Frogz and ZooZoo, which are built on movement and elaborate anthropomorphic costuming, and can be played around with: take out a scene and character here, put in another scene and character there, shift the approach the anteater or polar bear takes onstage. “Those shows allow us to change things,” Mouawad says. “They’re so much more nimble. You just have the performers, and the masks, and sometimes simple sound or no sound, and lighting.” La Belle, he adds, is different – because of its structural complexities, more set in its ways. It has more than 300 sound cues, for instance, and automatons that demand precise manipulation. To make significant changes, he says, “we’d have to go back into rehearsal. We can change the nuance of a scene, but it’s not like Frogz or ZooZoo.”

Lady Rose and the funhouse mirrors. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

Imago’s touring shows are family affairs, created to engage and hold the imaginations of children, but a big secret to their success is that they appeal strongly to adult sensibilities, too. There is nothing condescending about them, to child or adult. Their extreme physicality and sense of timing create a vivid theatricality bordering, sometimes, on borrowed danger. They may be whimsical, but they hold genuine wonder. Creating such a big people/little people show is a balancing act that requires both looseness and extreme attention to detail. And finding the balance isn’t easy. “Frogz has taught me so much about theater,” Mouawad says. “I tell performers, do not underestimate this work. I would say it takes three to five years to get to the top level of this kind of work.”

It also takes understanding. “We knew the attention span of children, and we knew that any effect could not last more than two or three minutes.” So La Belle steams on swiftly, constantly engaging and re-engaging the imagination. Yet it isn’t watered down. Usually, Mouawad says, he and Triffle think of their young audiences first and then try to make sure what they do will appeal to adults, too. With La Belle they flipped that formula on its head: make an adult tale that will appeal to children. Mythology, of course, covers all bases. And how you approach the telling of the tale matters. Triffle worked closely with the actors, emphasizing a clown approach.

“I never would have thought of doing it like that,” Mouawad says.

“You can’t tell this story realistically,” Triffle responds.

Beauty and Beast: a moment to mourn. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

In the end La Belle is all Imago, with a lot of influences. There’s a wicked fairy, who turns herself pretty one day of each year, and a good fairy named Gilda—not far off from Glinda. “We definitely borrowed from The Wizard of Oz,” Mouawad says. “We borrowed a lot. The Tempest was an influence, because you have the earth, and Ariel, the air.”

Technology, theatricality, visual spectacle, old-fashioned storytelling around the well-stoked fire: “It’s very magical,” Triffle says, and laughs. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.”

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