An uber-cool feast for the senses, Synetic Theater’s Beauty and The Beast (★★★★☆) resoundingly reclaims the notion of the fairytale, yanking it firmly back from the ravages of corporate America and bringing it, fully burnished, into the realm of unfettered imagination.
And make no mistake: although you most certainly can and should bring a child to this production, this wondrously-entertaining dance-theater experience is absolutely for adults.
This is not because of anything edgy (which Synetic has certainly been known to do), but by virtue of its charmingly amusing and sophisticated sensibilities. It is the salon tale its original 18th-century author, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, intended, brought to extraordinary life.
From the moment the lights fall, this is wholly immersive storytelling, with co-directors Ben Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili summoning a magical world through an extraordinarily skillful blend of dance, shadow-play, acrobatics, props, and lighting set to a vibrant tapestry of sound and music. This is choreography — not just of dance, but of an entire experience.
Although co-adaptors Ben and Peter Cunis draw from Villeneuve’s tale, the 1946 film by Jean Cocteau, and their own imaginations, the plotline will still be familiar to those brainwashed by Disney.
After her father accidentally provokes the Beast in his castle, Belle tries to make things right by visiting the Beast to make her appeal. Despite her initial trepidations, she grows to understand and become fond of the surprisingly personable creature.
As with most versions, we learn that the Beast is a prince who has been cursed to remain in his unnatural form until he is loved, although here the backstory is given some interesting elaboration.
The past and present is narrated with great effectiveness by a highly-charismatic Rachael Small as the witch Emmeranne, taking the form of a neo-Gothic blackbird with a penchant for French spells.
As with most Synetic productions, Beauty and the Beast is very much an ensemble piece, with even the smallest parts touched by choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili’s enduringly inventive vision.
This is, without doubt, essential to what makes the production so intriguing — be it the whirlwind of dance-mime, a cleverly comic turn, or life-sized candle bearers looking like they just stepped out of an art deco frieze. There is nothing short of a non-stop array of engagingly other-worldly activity — all of it as far removed from the dumbed-down, me-first, over-messaged zeitgeist as one can possibly get.
As for the leads, these are most certainly star turns for Zana Gankhuyag as the Beast, and Irinka Kavsadze as Belle. An extraordinary mover and dancer, Gankhuyag succeeds mightily in a key essential here — projecting a personality full of warmth and appeal from beneath a masked and be-furred exterior.
As the young motorcycle-boot-wearing Belle, Kavsadze breaks free of the usual stereotypes by creating a woman of strength without swagger, whose value in the world is not defined by her sexual allure. This is a credit to the direction overall: never are we subjected to the crass. This is theater that delivers by telling a really good story.
If this is all beginning to sound a bit highbrow, suffice to say there is plenty of humor, too. Channeling some clever Pepé Le Pew ardor is Jacob Thompson’s suitor, a village youth frantic for Belle’s attention. Thompson is not just a talented mover; he has superb comic timing.
Other comic standouts are Belle’s sisters Marie and Claudette, played by Irene Hamilton and Nutsa Tediashvili. These actor/dancers make it look effortless, but there is much skill in a balancing act that allows Tediashvili to go full-bore without stealing too much from her scenes.
Rounding out the cast and making for indispensable anchors are Irakli Kavsadze as Belle’s father, Jean-Paul, and Philip Fletcher as Magnificent, the Beast’s factotum and horse. Kavsadze is wonderfully understated here, bringing a genuine warmth and connection to Belle.
Fetcher, always a tremendous dancer, makes for a wonderfully friendly and ethereal presence in the story, a clever counterpoint to the ever-near blackbird. Kudos to Osama Ashour and Lev Belolipetski for bringing beauty to their candle bearers and the innumerable other roles they shared with the ensemble.
Finally, no Synetic production is complete without intense aural moods, and Clint Herring and Andrew Gerlicher provide atmospheric music in tandem with a highly-evocative soundscape courtesy of the wider Synetic team.
There is no better way to escape the last of the winter nights and the noisome fray of everyday life than with this reminder that there still is still plenty of beauty, if you only know where to look.
Beauty and the Beast runs through April 2 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St. in Arlington, Va. Tickets are $35 to $65. Call 703-824-8060 ext. 117 or visit www.synetictheater.org.
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