On Stage: The Beauty of It

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Synetic Theatre delivers a creative take on the classic fairy tale ‘Beauty and the Beast.’

Irinka Kavsadze as Belle, and Vato Tsikurishvili as The Beast in Synetic Theatre's production of "Beauty and the Beast." (Photo by Johnny Shryock)

Irinka Kavsadze as Belle, and Vato Tsikurishvili as The Beast in Synetic Theatre’s production of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ (Photo by Johnny Shryock)

Synetic Theatre’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” is described as family friendly, but make no mistake, this is no happy Walt Disney cartoon musical. This lavish Beauty and the Beast is told in the best tradition of classic fairy tales – it is dark and eerie.

The 18th century French fairy tale has been frequently reimagined and Synetic’s creative team focuses on the sensuality and darkness of this original gothic romance and turns it into something not experienced before in previous reiterations, or as a Synetic poster reads it is “…without the singing teapot.” In fact there isn’t a tea pot in sight, even though there are dancing figures in the performance carrying lighted candelabra in an obvious acknowledgement to Disney’s colorful animated version of the story.

The construct of the magical tale, as presented by Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s artistic director, and adapted by Ben and Peter Cunis, follows a young prince who fell in love with a beautiful girl, Emmeranne. As in often-troubled fairy tale loves, his royal parents objected and the craven prince claimed he had been bewitched by the beautiful girl. She was then declared a witch and burned at the stake.

We are now immediately aware that this is a very different Beauty and the Beast. As Emmeranne is dying — all this action takes place in silhouette as a witch, also named Emmeranne, narrates and stage manages the story – she curses the prince and the curse turns him into Beast.

Unfortunately the witch, a properly evil Renata Veberyte Loman, has to relate what has happened and creates an impatience for the story to begin. When it does it has been worth the wait. Beast, Vato Tsikurishvili, is a sympathetic creature wonderfully costumed by Kendra Rai. He is a silent, troubled figure, moving with an athletic grace. He doesn’t need to speak and is effectively choreographed by Synetic’s uniquely talented Irina Tsikurishvili.

As the story goes, with obvious comparative echoes from Cinderella and even King Lear, there is a merchant with three daughters: two are selfish and one is selfless and beautiful. Her name is Belle, Irina Kavsadze,  she is a delicate beauty and it is understandable that Beast falls for her.

Beast cannot be saved from his ugliness until he learns to love and his only remaining human part – his heart – he places in a rose. The merchant stumbles onto Beast’s castle and plucks the rose and then Beast threatens him and demands his youngest daughter as a price.

Thus begins the unexpected attraction that develops into love, even though the Beast is frightening to Belle at first. It is the familiar story that loves conquers and the Beast, who doesn’t really seem to deserve forgiveness, since his cowardliness caused the death of his love, is returned to his human form and lives happily ever after (it is presumed) with Belle.

There seems to have been less of Irina Tsikurishvili’s innovative athletic, dance movements in this production than in previous Synetic performances. But anything at Synetic is creatively unique. This production has a spooky set design by Daniel Pinha, with a ragged, hanging sheet of cloth extending almost into the audience. The haunting mood of this Beauty and the Beast is evident walking into the theater.

The set is enhanced by the careful lighting design of Brittany Diliberto and Thomas Sowers‘ supportive sound design. Advertised to be accessible to children over seven, the fact that the show runs, without intermission, for 100 minutes, challenges the attention spans of children in that age category. While the recent trend of productions that are staged without intermissions improves the theatrical experience for most adults, it is difficult for children to sit still that long. I was there with my twin, nearly 8-year-old grandchildren. They were mesmerized for the first 40 or so minutes, but became fidgety and restless as it progressed. They needed a break.

Beauty and the Beast may not be as family friendly as Paata Tsikurishvili claims, but it is worth the time and worth exposing older children to the literary world of fairy tales. And for adults, the technology and performances on this production are virtually flawless, a real treat for an elegant look at a well-worn classic. Synetic, as usual, continues to stretch and expand the theatrical experience.

Beauty and the Beast” continues through January 11, 2015 at Synetic Theatre 1800 South Bell St., Arlington, VA 22202. Tickets are $15-$95 and available at 866-811-4111 and online here.

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