Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Beauty and the Beast go to the Haunted Mansion

Two Disney franchises collide at ArtsEmerson.

Rarely has a single YouTube served quite so well as a theatrical review as the one above does, of La Belle et la Bête, by Lemieux Pilon 4D Art, which plays at ArtsEmerson through Dec. 9.

I'm serious.  Just look at the effects captured above; they are why you should see this show. Are those fantastic images as convincing on the stage, you may ask?  Believe it or not, for the most part, they are.  Multimedia wizards Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, the driving forces behind the Montreal-based Lemieux Pilon 4D Art, work wonder after wonder in La Belle et la Bête through the latest tweaks of an old technology called "Pepper's Ghost", which you may remember from Disney's "Haunted Mansion" ride (no, these aren't holograms, but rather projections on a giant, barely-discernible scrim that is stretched at an angle in front of the action).

Whether the technology is new or old doesn't matter, of course; the fact that it conjures amazing stage pictures (that actually seem to surround and interact with the actors) is all that counts.  And there are dozens of stunning moments in this show (perhaps my favorites were the ghost that creeps stealthily from a mirror, the thorns that slowly twist around la Bête's gloomy castle, the sudden rainstorm that envelops Belle, and the glorious white stallion that runs through every now and then for some reason).  To be honest, the imagery is usually bluntly literal - even the "symbols" feel literal; when the two leads lock lips, for instance, flames actually rise around them. (Get it?) So don't think you're headed to a show by Robert Lepage here; we're a long way from the layered, ambiguous metaphors of The Andersen Project.

But alas, the text, by Pierre Yves Lemieux, does have pretensions to "art" - which mostly go bump in the digital night.  In this version, there's a narrator/enchantress/author with some sort of murky, obsessive connection to la Bête, and both leads have mysterious alter egos, and - oh, never mind.  (That YouTube may be in French, but it's not much better in English.)  My advice is to simply ignore the dialogue altogether - that is if you can also tune out the over-amplified bass (I swear, it never fails, the dimmer the production, the chunkier the bass!).  The good news is that the actors (who are often playing against thin air) make a good impression despite what they have to say, particularly the lovely Bénédicte Décary as Belle, and the great Diane D'Aquila (whom old Boston theatre hands may remember from her days at the A.R.T.), who almost puts over that narrator.  (And I might have liked Vincent Leclerc's Beast a bit more if he'd mumbled less.)

In the end, however, the production mostly only whets our appetites for what Lemieux Pilon 4D Art might be able to do with other, better (or even great) plays.  Could this technology serve a production of Shakespeare's Tempest - or his Hamlet?  Could the RSC or Canada's Stratford Festival (which is closer to home, and to Montreal) season a show with a few shots of Pepper's Ghost?  Let's hope someday they do - and in the meantime, just sit back and watch (but don't listen to) La Belle et la Bête.

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