The Puppet Co.’s current production of “Beauty and the Beast” is not a recreation of the 1991 Disney animated version, and there are no enchanted teapots and candlesticks to make children giggle. Yet it is suggestive of a “tale as old as time,” or rather of 1858, if we may nonetheless quote the title song to the Disney film.
Puppet Co. Co-Founder, President, and Artistic Director Christopher Piper tells us that “the Puppet Company’s policy is to go to the original source material, rather than works derived from the original,” and in this case the text is “The Scarlet Flower” by the Russian writer Sergey Aksakov, first published in 1858. It is a Romantic Era quest in search of “the most beautiful rose.”
The puppet mastery is second to none…
However, there are still many aspects that Disney-raised children (and their parents) will recognize, from the furry, fierce, yet lovable appearance of the Beast to the stylized image of the rose high above the set, an association made famous in Disney advertising posters. We would argue the Russian origin might have been emphasized more, as in preserving Beauty’s name in the Russian version: Nastenka, or Anastasia. Perhaps, however, this latter name might have evoked more confusion with Russian-inspired 1990’s animated characters!
In the story (“Beauty and the Beast” or “The Scarlet Flower” — take your pick), a handsome, self-absorbed prince is punished by becoming an ugly Beast. Hopefully, Beauty, with her purity and love, can redeem his character and with it restore his handsome features, if she can but stay “until the red rose turns white.” Her sisters, though beautiful, are no Beauty; their names, Pride and Vanity, also describe their characters, and they are not helpful in Beauty’s fulfilling her altruistic goals.
This production must especially be praised for its discussion of values – notably, that inner beauty and outer beauty are often worlds apart. “Things are not what they seem,” says one of the characters, and thus the story introduces children to the dichotomy of appearance vs. reality often found in literature — and in life itself.
The Russian element can be seen in story-book painted backgrounds, one showing a castle with Kremlin-like onion-shaped domes. Indeed, one especially appealing aspect of Puppet Co. productions is that they provide children with exposure to classical music, particularly the recorded music of the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s “Tale of the Stone Flower” (based on another Russian folk tale), heard in the background. (More Prokofiev fairy-tale magic up-coming, as the Puppet Co. takes on “Peter in the Wolf” late in the season.)
Terry Snyder is a major force behind this Puppet Co. Playhouse production, including the design of the puppets, the puppet costumes, and the set. Puppet masters Elizabeth Dapo and Christopher Piper perform directly on stage behind, next to, and even occasionally in front of the puppets, and it is nice to see their artistry directly. Why choose to let these puppet masters work in plain view of the audience? This adds a more personal touch, and for those of us who have spent years watching their performances, it shows them up close as these particular puppet artists prepare to bid farewell to their loyal fans. (More about this in a moment.)
Beauty, Pride, Vanity, their father, and — last but not least — the Beast are traditional marionettes, at times dressed in peasant costumes, at other time regal gowns. Yet this might all be a static approach if the puppet masters were not able to give life to their creations through gesture. The puppet mastery is second to none, but it is also the voices of Christopher and Elizabeth which give special life and personality to the puppets. In addition to memories of Disney and a wonderful presentation of Russian culture, a few parts of the performance also conjure memories of Saturday morning cartoons, if one remembers the Syncro-Vox animation style of the animated TV adventure series “Clutch Cargo,” used in an animated masked creature who speaks with Beauty. The production has a decided charm, and children will enjoy the mix of media brought to bear on this old Russian tale.
We must make mention that the creative team of the Puppet Co., Allan Stevens and Christopher and MayField Piper, are getting ready for retirement. “I’m 68, Allan is 77, and MayField is, well, a little younger than me. Having accomplished our main mission, we all feel it is time to move away from the rigors of the profession while we can still go out on top.” A statement released by the Puppet Co. notes that the organization is now developing a transition plan, with new artistic and administrative leadership planned for this summer. The current three-person team will hand over leadership after an interim artistic director is appointed.
Until this change takes place in June, Mr. Piper and company are revisiting some of their “hits.” This is the eighth production of “Beauty and the Beast” at the Puppet Co., and “Hansel and Gretel and “Peter and the Wolf” will soon follow. At Maryland Theatre Guide, we intend to cover these final productions of this current creative team which has been a part of Glen Echo Park and area children productions since 1983.
Running Time: 40 minutes.
“Beauty and the Beast” plays at Puppet Co. Playhouse at Glen Echo Park at 7300 MacArthur Boulevard in Glen Echo, Maryland, through March 29, 2020. For more information, please visit online.