It’s a week until opening night, and Jerry Mouawad sounds, frankly, a little weary.
“I don’t think I’ll ever do a work this complicated again,” says Mouawad, co-artistic director of Imago Theatre. “It was way too technically complex.”
These words, mind you, come from a co-creator of Frogz, a masterful and internationally successful piece of masked theater and acrobatics. But not even decades of Frogz and its follow-up, ZooZoo, could prepare Mouawad for La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton, running at Imago December 9–January 8. The show, a Beauty and the Beast adaptation, has been three years in the making. Set on a 1920s steamship that whirs and whistles onstage, La Belle features dozens of elaborate puppets (some operated by clockwork mechanics), clown theater, shadow play, movement, and music—a few trip-hop numbers as well as some ragtime-esque, ukulele-powered tunes.
The result is a roughly hourlong show—“a quaint little piece,” Mouawad says. Despite the enormous labor and significant expense, he’s afraid to overhype it. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a gigantic masterpiece,” he said. “It may or may not be. I don’t know.”
Like Frogz and ZooZoo, La Belle should appeal to kids as young as four, but also to their parents and other full-grown, sophisticated theatergoers.
“It’s not so hard to entertain kids for 15 or 20 minutes, but what’s hard is keeping them involved for a full-length work that can stand alone for a full adult audience,” Mouawad says. “The layers of the story and the form should appeal to an astute person in the arts, but we’re also trying to ensure that 5- and 6-year-olds are entranced. It’s the most difficult kind of theater for us to create.”
Mouawad and co-artistic director Carol Triffle based La Belle on Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 novel, La Belle et la Bête—the original Beauty and the Beast, not the abridged and rewritten version that would go on to inspire the Disney movie. The show has only two human characters: a steamship crew member (Jim Vadala) and the vacationer (Justine Davis) who joins him—and his many fanciful gadgets—in the engine room. Puppetry and play kindle romance.
La Belle will go on to tour nationally through 2018. While the show signals a new direction for Imago, Mouawad says the exact path is still unclear (plus, last summer, the company decided to sell its longtime home). Masked theater is probably in Imago’s past—revivals notwithstanding—but Mouawad wouldn’t bank on another puppets- and effects-filled extravaganza. Why not? By way of argument, he cites a 10-inch tall fairy puppet that took five people four months to create—and spends less than a minute onstage. “And then just multiply that by 30...” he says.
“I told the performers the other day that Carol and I have made a career of mistakes,” Mouawad says. “In Frogz and ZooZoo, it was the mistakes that happened in performance that led to discovery of very funny and genuine moments. When we put this show in front of an audience, we’ll start looking for when things go wrong and see if they inspire new directions.”
La Belle runs December 9–January 8 at Imago Theatre.