Tuesday, December 13, 2016

La Belle (Lost in the World of the Automaton)—Imago Theatre—SE Portland

Eye of the Beholder

This imaginative, family production, is inspired by the original French story of “Beauty and the Beast” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve written in 1740.  This stage production is created, designed and directed by Carol Triffle, Jerry Mouawad (Imago Founders and Artistic Directors) and co-written by Devin Stinson.  Original music and lyrics are by Triffle, Amanda Payne, Alyssa Payne and Lydia Ooghe.  It stars Jim Vadala as Sam and Justine Davis as Rose with Lance Woolen and Erin Nicole Chmela as puppeteers.  It is playing at their space, 17 SE 8th Ave. (off Burnside), through January 8th.  (Mostly street parking only, so plan your time accordingly.)  For more information, go to their site at www.imagotheatre.com or call 503-231-9581.

It is said the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  Tis true.  For what is lovely to one person may not be so to another.  “And thereby hangs a tale.”  The story involves two humans and a bevy of imaginative creatures aboard the ship, La Belle.  It is Sam Stoker’s (Vadala) job to live up to his namesake and “stoke” the engines, keeping the ship running smoothly with just some coal, a monkey-wrench and his ingenuity.  But it is a lonely, dirty and “stinky” job to be trapped all the time in the bowels of the liner with only his teddy bear and imagination to keep him sane.

That is until a freak storm occurs and one of the passengers, Rose (Davis), is delivered unceremoniously into his realm and both their worlds will change dramatically forever.  There is no doubt there are differences…on the outside.  He is a sooty loner from the working class.  She, a high-society lady.  But somehow, within, between them, there is the spark of magic afoot.  The connection between them is of a deeper sort, a song yet to be sung, a region on the verge of discovery.  It surrounds them in the passengers’ trunks and in the very fabric of the ship itself, awaiting only their command to come alive.

They are both storytellers, as that is their way of communicating.  One story involves a blue fairy who falls in love with a human, which is forbidden in their kingdom.  There is even a wicked fairy that has designs to thwart their plans.  Another story is about an orphaned girl who is raised by a rich family only to be sunk into poverty when their fortunes are lost.  But, a chance encounter by her father in a magical castle, may restore them to their former glory, if one of his daughters is willing to spend the rest of her days in this castle with the beast who rules it.  Interestingly, both these stories have a personal connection to Sam and Rose.  But, mums the word on the conclusion, as that is for you to discover.

Obviously, if you are familiar with Imago’s work, the secret of their presentations are not just simple stories, well told, but in the style of how they are told.  In this case there are giant puppet heads, shadow plays, silhouettes, puppets, masks, stylized movements, dolls, songs, secret doors and passages, graphics and visuals, colorful backdrops and even a wee bit of magic throw in.  It all has to work like clockwork for it to succeed, but succeed they do, creating a world that even Disney would envy!

I can see origins of this creation in the works of Eugene O’Neill, “The Hairy Ape” (about a beast-like human working in the boiler room of a ship); “Pinocchio” (the blue fairy); “Cinderella” (a dysfunctional family, with a misfit girl as their slave); “The Merchant of Venice” (the loss of his fortune at sea); and, of course, the original story, the best movie version by far being the 1930’s Cocteau film.  There are also influences of the silent film era, especially Chaplin and Keaton, with the exaggerated expressions and stylized movements.  And it all works together to perfection!

Another innovative invention (among a myriad of original creations) is the interpretation of the characters.  Belle is not the stereotypic, pretty, bland maid from other incarnations but Davis comes across as an innocent, a rather silly goose at times, caught up in a world that is a bit overwhelming.  Vadala awkwardly stumbles his way through the relationship, giving the impression his heart is in the right place but his body is all akimbo when attempting to match the rhythm of that heart to actions.  But it is in their storytelling that they connect.  Vadala has long been a stage favorite of mine and he is spot on in this role.  Davis is a wonder, as I thoroughly enjoyed her very unique creation of her role.  And not to slight the puppeteers, Woolen and Chmela, in their performances of the many supporting characters, which are amazing.

Triffle and Mouawad have outdone themselves with this production.  It is indeed a masterpiece of storytelling raised to an infinite degree.  A delicious feast for the eyes and ears and nourishing fodder for the soul.  It is a cornucopia of sights and sounds that burrow through the hard shell of adulthood to the child-like wonder of innocence and imagination, too long buried.  In this age of chaos, it is gratifying to know that one can still blush with wonderment, at something as simple as a rose seemingly appearing out of nowhere, for it soothes, for a moment, the troubled waters of a discordant era.

The creators of the music and songs, the sound designer (Kyle Delamarter), and all the many designers/builders of the set, costumes, lighting and, of course, the puppets, are to be highly commended.  This is a work of Art, make no mistake about it—long may it survive.  Tickets are selling fast so best contact them now.

Obviously, I highly recommend this family show.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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