Theater Review: “Beauty and the Beast” — Only Skin Deep

This version of “La Belle et la Bête” never commits to a through-line about how its metaphors and rich visual imagery are supposed to operate.

La Belle et la Bête. Created and directed by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon. English translation by Maureen Labonte. Music by Michel Smith. Set, costumes, and accessories by Anne-Seguin Poirier. Make up by Jacques-Lee Pelletier. Lighting by Alain Lortie. Presented by Arts Emerson at the Cutler Majestic Theater, Boston, MA, through December 9.

By Debra Cash

A spooky moment in La Belle et la Bête. Photo: Yves Renaud.

La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast), a 90-minute meditation on the classic fairy tale by Lemieux Pilon 4D Art and Theatre du Nouveau Monde of Montreal, was inspired in no small part by the perfect 1946 Cocteau film with Josette Day and Jean Marais. (An informative post on the film, with some stunning photos.)

Disney begone. This Beauty is no simpering girl. Performed by Bénédicte Décary, she’s a modern-day painter who splashes her coarse figurative work of trussed up men with angry, red washes. The Beast (Vincent Leclerc) is no victim of enchantment. Disfigured, perhaps by accident or fire, he remembers his handsome self and smashes the mirror that shows him that his earlier self is gone for good. And there’s a third actor in this La Belle et la Bete, The Lady (Diane D’Aquila), a woman of a certain age dressed at first like a volunteer docent, gesturing to the details of Henry Fuseli’s 1781 The Nightmare in a gilded frame. She is a storyteller who may or may not have special insight into the Beast’s history. She may or may not have a personal agenda about how the story comes out.

These three characters encounter and counter each other in a series of vignettes enchanted through the magic of the virtual. In shifting settings conjured by screens, video, and computer animation, wild brambles snake through the theater, a gargoyle (Peter James) twists on his pedestal, and Belle’s Barbie-Doll-like Sister (Anne-Marie Cadieux) looms and shrinks as both the denigrating demon and the encouraging angel at Belle’s shoulder. Lemieux Pilon’s visual environments are superb: the industrial rawness of Belle’s painting studio contrasts with the medieval, wrought iron gates, Gothic vaults, and ruined gardens of the Beast’s domain. There’s a mirror just this side of Professor Dumbledore’s pensive and a white horse that magically appears and gallops through fields and interior rooms.

Initially, when Belle defaced her paintings, I was hoping that this version of La Belle et la Bete was going to turn the tables with the beauty getting in touch with her aggression and the beast, perhaps, his feminine side. No go. Instead, scriptwriter Lemieux took this to refer to two suffering souls finding recognition in each other, exchanging “a scar for a scar.” Décary and Leclerc are underwhelming actors, italicizing their lines and intentions. It’s all melodramatic hyperbole, although Décary’s Belle did seem like the kind of young woman who would lift her face up, delighted, into a downpour.

A tender moment in La Belle et la Bête. Photo: Yves Renaud

D’Aquila’s narcissistic, aria-like speeches run from confiding to hysterical. You don’t believe in her motivation, but it’s possible that as her position in this story shifts, you’ve never really supposed to. And once Vincent Leclerc throws back his deep hood, it seems that self-loathing is his most damaging disability; he’s a fairy tale Phantom of the Opera.

La Belle et la Bête offers an implicit subplot out of its associations with the mystique of vision: the painter who wants to replicate the visible, the beast who grapples with the insubstantiality of memory, the contemporary delight we take from the way technology can make something that is not really there appear to have color, depth, and weight.

However, La Belle et la Bête does less well as an existential challenge. Unlike the great Cocteau film, which anchored its retelling on the themes of innocence renewed through love and inner beauty recognized despite appearances, La Belle et la Bête never commits to a through-line about how its metaphors and rich visual imagery are supposed to operate. Lemieux asks his characters and audience “who are you, really?” but he doesn’t demand the same clarity of purpose of his script. Equivocality can be a virtue in contemporary art, but in La Belle et la Bête, it arrests the heart of happily ever after.

Debra Cash, a founding contributor to the Arts Fuse now serving on its Board, is Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance and a longtime member of the Authors Guild.

c Debra Cash 2012

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