‘La Belle’: a beauty of a Beauty

Imago Theatre
Oregon ArtsWatch

Imago's bold and charming "La Belle: Lost in the Automaton" retells the age-old "Beauty and the Beast" as a steampunk vaudeville (with puppets)

By Marty Hugely

Perhaps future generations, though, will think of the story and imagine not forests and castles but the grimy engine room of a coal-powered steamship. Their memories will be filled not with Disney’s storybook colors or Cocteau’s poetic cinematic effects but with a more immediate kind of artistic magic: puppets and automatons and actors on a stage.

They’ll think of Imago.

La Belle: Lost in the World of the Automaton is Imago Theatre’s new adaptation of the  “Beauty and the Beast” story, just opened for a five-week run at the company’s near-eastside home, and it’s a beauty indeed. Bold in concept, surprising and delightful to the eye, and utterly charming, it retells the familiar fairy romance within a framework that might be described as steampunk vaudeville. Deftly blending ingenious low-tech stagecraft and a wry, contemporary sensibility, it features just two actors, plus two unseen puppeteers, amid a broad array of visually arresting puppets (rod, shadow, banraku…), moving parts and mechanical effects. Yet amidst all the gears and rods and pulleys, all the characters made of cloth and papier mâché, a sweet heart beats.
As reimagined by Imago co-founders Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad and novice stage writer Devin Stinson, the story takes place  circa 1920, in that aforementioned engine room, on a steamship called La Belle. There we meet Sam Stoker, the sooty yet good-natured soul who shovels the coal, with only a teddy bear to keep him company. When the ships gets suddenly storm-tossed (“It can be a bit fickle, for just a trickle,” as Sam puts it), in wanders one of his betters from above decks, a sweet young thing called Lady Rose — her name a nod to the rose picked from the Beast’s garden in the original tale. Sam and Rose meet cute, albeit with a kind of touching tentativeness, a purposefully awkward, herky-jerky comic rhythm that is a Triffle specialty. Filthy but kind, Sam is our Beast stand-in, while Rose, almost bumbling in her naiveté, is our unusual Beauty.

Read the full review.