At first glance, the silhouette of a Gothic castle on the set of “Beauty and the Beast” seems to signal a journey to Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The thought is quickly dispelled as the castle crumbles, replaced by bare branches and the menacing cawing of crows. As if by magic, the shadow puppetry vanishes and an actor is standing in front of the screen. We do not see her enter, we only see her ominous presence. She is Emmeranne. As with all powerful women, she was deemed unnatural, a witch, and sentenced to burn. She has returned as a crow and is our narrator for this haunting tale of romance, despair, and redemption.
…an outstanding cast, notably Zana Gankhuyag in the role of the Beast.
This production, directed by Ben Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili, is adapted by Cunis and his brother Peter from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 1740 novel, “La Belle et la Bête,” and takes creative inspiration from Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont’s version of the story and Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film. “Beauty and the Beast” replaces “War of the Worlds” as conceived and directed by Synetic Theater co-founder and Artistic Director, Paata Tsikurishvili. He received a warm welcome from the audience on press night and appears to be recovering well from serious injuries sustained in a recent car accident. (“War of the Worlds” will now premiere in Fall 2023.)
The actors tell the story in Synetic’s signature style through movement, visual effects, and emotion. No words are necessary, with the exception of Emmeranne, our spirit guide to this dark and mystical world. Originally staged by Synetic in 2014, the current production has an outstanding cast, notably Zana Gankhuyag in the role of the Beast. Gankhuyag’s Beast is fearsome, fearful, shy, exasperated, and beautiful. We understand how Belle (Irina Kavsadze) loses her repulsion for him and falls in love with his kindness and charm. Flanked by her comedically jealous sisters, Claudette and Marie (Nutsa Tediashvili and Irene Hamilton), Kavsadze never falls into caricature as the studious, honest, and true third daughter of the merchant, Jean Paul (Irakli Kavsadze).
Another standout performance is Jacob Thompson as Avenant, the love interest of both Claudette and Marie. Avenant only wants Belle who shuns his blustery approaches. After Belle disappears into the Beast’s castle, Avenant tracks her down and viciously attacks the Beast in a heart-stopping, almost aerial, battle to the Beast’s death. But wait—true love brings the beast salvation and transformation back to human form. In his note, Director Ben Cunis says “it takes courage to look beneath our first assumptions about people, to weather our fears.” This is the lesson Belle offers to all of us.
Joyful romantic discovery and fearsome battles are robustly brought to life by Irina Tsikurishvili’s imaginative choreography. The simple, but cleverly designed set includes curved surfaces built into cubes. The lovers playfully slide down the curves in one moment, while the Beast and his competitor Avenant masterfully leap off and roll into battle from those same surfaces in the next.
The play is enhanced throughout by shadow puppets designed by the multi-talented Zana Gankhuyag. Especially moving moments include a butterfly flying at night and the image of Belle with the Beast revealed to Avenant in a mirror. Lighting, designed by Brian Allard, subtly enhances the shifts in mood from sweet and sensitive to hatred and fury. A strobe light mounted centerstage behind the screen is a powerful effect but overused here. A stronger warning to audience members who may be sensitive to extended pulsating light directed straight at the audience is recommended. Additionally, the sound was uneven on press night. Several moments of intimacy or sensitivity were compromised by over-amplification of the musical underscore. Hopefully, this will be adjusted for future performances.
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: All ages are welcome but parental guidance is advised for younger children due to fantasy violence and exploration of adult themes that may be scary to very young children. Best for ages 7+.
“Beauty and the Beast” runs through April 2, 2023 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S Bell St, Arlington, VA 22202 at the Crystal City Metro & Shops. Performances are on Friday and Saturday evenings, Sunday matinees, and select Thursday evenings. For more information and tickets, ($35-$60) go online.
COVID Health and Safety: Masks are optional but recommended for all patrons, staff and ushers during our shows and events (effective March 1, 2023). Patrons who prefer to sit socially distanced may sit in a section at the back of the theater, where a number of seats are reserved. Please see an usher upon arrival. All Synetic full-time, part-time, volunteer, and contract staff are fully vaccinated. Staff members undergo regular testing.