Beauty and the Beast
People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern, through Jan. 4, (610) 644-3500
"Do not trust your eyes," the magical servants and spirits in Beast's palace tell Beauty (Susan McKey); "we see with more than our eyes."
That certainly proves true for Beauty. But at People's Light & Theatre, where Laurence Boswell's adaptation of Beauty and the Beast has been staged by director David Ingram, there's a lot for the eye to see. And learning to trust our eyes as theatergoers enables us to experience the transformational magic of the fairy tale and the theatrical magic of the performance.
The magic of Beauty and the Beast is primarily visual - the frames and curtains of James F. Pyne Jr.'s silver-and-onyx setting, the objects and props manipulated by the actors, are all set into motion to the patterns and rhythms of Billy Yalowitz's choreographed movements, to feed the eyes with visual magic. The magical horse that carries Beauty's father (Tom Teti) to and from Beast's palace is a single actor (Kathryn Petersen), whose rhythmic stamping is enough to set the entire company galloping. The flames of the fireplace in Beauty's bed chamber are yellow and orange silken handkerchiefs that dance before our eyes as an actor (Larry Grant Malvern) juggles them. Swirling white silk sheets represent a snowstorm. Actors carrying candelabra become the walls of the palace where, without a single living servant, the palace itself springs to life to satisfy every need of Beast's unwilling guests.
There are two types of theatrical magic at work in Beast's palace. On the one hand, inanimate objects come alive through the physical presence of the actors who animate them. Unlike the talking clocks and candlesticks of the Disney cartoon, or the disembodied arms of the wall sconces in Jean Cocteau's movie, the people-less palace is magical here because it is peopled - by the actors who spread a series of rugs under the feet of Beast's guests, by the actors (Peter DeLaurier and Melanye Finister) who play the wooden automata servants, and by the actors who populate the magical rooms (the room of mirrors, the room of harmony, the room of clowns) that Beauty visits during her lonely sojourn in the palace.
But then there's the Beast, created by puppet designer Doug Roysdon. I won't describe him in detail, so that you can relish the surprise yourself. But I will say that the Beast is defiantly uncuddly and completely unanthropomorphizable. In a magical world animated by actors, the Beast is stripped of any actorly presence and exists only as a piece of theater - spectacular, but spectacularly unlovable. And so Beauty's willingness to sit with the creature, to touch him, to dance with him, and ultimately to love him, becomes the greatest piece of magic of all.
Ingram employs so many different types of theatrical devices that the production occasionally seems a bit of a stylistic hodgepodge. Several of the thematic strands seem oddly undeveloped, notably the significance of the death of Beauty's mother (Ceal Phelan), and its thematic link to the White Witch, played by the same actor, who appears in Beauty's dreams alongside the Unknown Prince (Benjamin Lloyd). The point raised by the director and the dramaturg in their program notes - about young women in 18th-century France forced to marry wealthy men who turn out to be beasts - doesn't really get played out in the production, especially since the play seems to tell the opposite story. And, more seriously, the final transformation, while emotionally satisfying, is a bit perfunctory theatrically.
But the play works its magic. Beauty learns to listen to her heart rather than trust her eyes, and by doing so frees the Beast from the magic spell. Meanwhile, in the theater, the spectators, young and old, learn to trust their eyes, and, as a reward, are kept spellbound.
-Cary M. Mazer