Theatre New Brunswick
If you want to bring an old tale like Beauty and the Beast tolife in a modern medium, there are a number of possible strategies.
You can decorate it -- fill it with music, dance, poetry, and art, theway most grand opera productions of Humperdinck's Hansel and Greteldo, for instance, or the way Disney has done with this story.
You can make it real, by taking the outline of the story and creatingcharacters with believable motives and serious relationships, who makethe events of the tale seem reasonable, even inevitable. Probably the mostpowerful example of this strategy is Shakespeare's taking an old folk taleabout a king dividing up his kingdom and makingKing Lear out ofit. (Jane Smiley took the same story even further with A Thousand Acres.)
You can make it modern and witty, by writing clever characters and playingself-conscious games with the conventions, the way James Thurber did withfables and with his own original fairy tales, like The Thirteen Clocks.
In the production that opened the Theatre New Brunswick season in thenewly refurbished Fredericton Playhouse Friday night, director Donnie Bowesseems to have been asked to do all three at once. Bowes, and the designer,Patrick Clark, do a better than respectable job. But finally, the eveningdoesn't quite create the magic the play's resident wizard, Hodge, callsfor in his curtain line: "Only those who really need magic will find it."We really needed it, and we didn't quite find it.
Everyone knows the outline of the story, and I suspect many of the childrenin the opening night audience knew it much better than I did -- from theDisney production, the spinoff musical, the TV show and the half-dozenbook retellings of the past decade or so.
This version opens with a rough and uncivilized prince (played confidentlyby Jonathan Purdon), being disciplined by the wizard Hodge (played ratherless confidently, particularly at the beginning, by Michael Shepherd),and his "nephew," a hyperactive dragon named Mikey (played with ample ifnot excessive energy by Timm Hughes). The "discipline" consists of magicallyshutting the prince up in a castle for what was to have been twenty yearsbut turns out, because Hodge is absent-minded, to be five hundred years,during which he's converted from a figurative to a literal Beast.
Then we're introduced to a Mr. Clement -- like the prince, lost in theWizard's magic forest, but unlike him, hardly beastly at all (only DavidHughes could carry off this level of niceness with any conviction at all).Through the usual fairy-tale confusion of magic and misunderstanding, Clement'sdaughter, who is named Jane but is called "Beauty," winds up as a sortof assigned companion to the lonely Beast. The expectable, of course, happens:the Beast falls in love with Beauty, and she in turn comes to see thatunder the rough exterior there's something not quite so Beastly -- in fact,something potentially rather princely. Jonathan Purdon, converted intoa Beast in part by means of a wonderfully expressive Patrick Clark mask,plays the role as though he were twisted not only externally, but alsointernally, moving in strange, awkward lurches and emitting periodic barksand growls. Claire Jullien is effective and touching as the perpetuallystartled (not to say terrified) guest in the Beast's magical domain. Eventhough the script doesn't offer much material to help in creating it, therelation between Beauty and Beast, as presented by Purdon and Jullien,has some genuinely affecting moments.
Patrick Clark's elegant painted frames border the scenes and tell us,as they move in and out to create the forest, the castle, and the Clement'shome, that we're in a storybook, and the costumes -- especially those ofthe wizard and the prince -- are elegant and appropriately magical.
And yet, all these considerable talents couldn't quite lift us out ofthe November doldrums and catapult us into Christmas. The central problemis the weak script, by Nicholas Stuart Gray. Its language is, unfortunately,wooden, talky, repetitive, and distinctly unmagical. The laughs and thegasps were created by the company's slapstick and the Playhouse's specialeffects rather than by the lines or by the structure of the story or bythe characters.
Among other problems, perhaps what bothered me most was the lack ofany consistent convention about magic or fairy tales (everybody knows youneed to prepare for the ending of a fairy tale by laying down the conditionsclearly at the outset). This script doesn't set up consistent limitationsfor the magic -- it tells us only that Hodge is, as he says at the outset,a good magician "on a modest scale." In fact, though, he seems limitedonly by the demands of the plot: if it's necessary for the Beast to beconfined, Hodge can't release him. If it's necessary for Beauty's fatherto be transported to the Beast's castle, there's no problem -- but if it'snecessary for it to be difficult for Beauty to get back there to save thelovelorn Beast's life, suddenly Hodge's magic isn't available. And it'snever made clear what the conditions of the Beast's imprisonment are, soeverything that happens is a surprise.
More generally, the script doesn't exhibit the kind of coherence thatlets you form expectations. Elements are introduced and then abandoned.For example, there is a peculiar "lie detector" (a cone that rides up arope to some startling sound effects whenever someone slips into an untruth).It's used for laughs in the first scene, but simply abandoned afterwards.Beauty's twin sisters (played gigglingly by Natalie Roy and Tobin Haley)have almost no function in the plot, except to throw away the magical ringthat was to transport Beauty back to the Beast's castle. (This difficulty,typically, is solved by arbitrarily having Mikey the dragon develop magicalpowers which simply put the ring back on Beauty's finger.) It's hard notto suspect that the author thought that since he was writing for childrenhe didn't have to bother with these details.
In the short run, he may be right: the kids sitting near me seemed quiteengaged by the production. In the long run, though, I think we missed yetanother chance to introduce kids to the genuine magic of theatre, whichis the opportunity to become authentically involved with something youcan see is really just pretend. I was rather surprised that Theatre NewBrunswick didn't call on the considerable resident talent to create anoriginal script: surely Bowes and Walter Learning and the company couldhave done better than Gray does with the basic story material. [WhatI didn't say in the public review]
Perhaps they felt that the technical and design resources of the Playhousewould make it magical even without much of a script. Unfortunately, forwhatever reasons, even the special effects fell short of the demands thisplaced on them. Flashpots went off on time, smoke appeared at the requisitemoments, and the apparatus which allowed Mikey the dragon to fly functionedas required, and yet all of them were not quite full, rich and convincingenough to be magical. It was as though the company couldn't decide whetherto do the kind of obviously artificial, puppet-show stylization suggestedby the painted flats of the set, or the big, technically brilliant kindof production typified by the smoke and flashes. When various characters,for instance, are transported magically, the lines suggest they shouldbe lifted and flown away, but in fact they exit through the smoke, on foot.
This may be because a production which really did fly the charactersaway, or had them appear and disappear convincingly in a puff of smoke,would be extremely expensive. TNB has said they were pulling out all thestops on this one, but their current financial straits may mean that therereally aren't all that many stops left.
Still, this is a show worth seeing, and taking kids to see, if onlyfor the work of the main actors and for the set and costumes. If it fallsshort of transporting us with the magic Hodge calls for, it's still a warmand entertaining way to spend a snowy pre-Christmas evening.