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Monday, November 18, 2013

Beauty, Ever Ephemeral

by Brian Scott Lipton

Beauty and the Beast may be a tale as old as time, but that hasn’t stopped artists from finding their own ways of telling the story of the shy, beautiful girl who falls in love with the ugly monster who is really a prince. Now, Lemieux Pilon 4D Art co-founders Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon are delivering their own take. La Belle et la Bête, at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House November 21 to 23, blends elements of the classic 18th-century fairy tale with 21st-century technology.

Enchanted by Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 film, the pair decided to dig deeper into the story’s history. “We first read the version written for children by Mme. De Beaumont in the 1750s. It’s very popular in France,” says Lemieux. “Then we found out that it was based on a short adult novel by Mme. de Villeneuve, written 15 years earlier. It was to prepare women to marry a rich but ugly man. All of these bedtime stories our parents tell us, they became our myths. And there’s always a moral. They’re designed to tell us how to live and often tell us the tragic destiny of ourselves.”

Using plot details from both versions, Lemieux and Pilon, whose production of La Tempête was seen at BAM in 2006, crafted their own story. “Our beast is not an ugly old man, but a man who was in love and abandoned by that love. He’s kind of sexy but disfigured,” says Lemieux. “The beauty is a woman from today; she’s a young, intelligent, visual artist, who has issues dealing with the death of her mother. Like the beast, she’s kind of hurt herself. The fact is we all have some sort of drama in our lives. So we have these two characters who are broken, meet against all odds, and fall in love. And that leads to the questions we want to explore: Is it still possible to fall in love without the idea of conventional beauty? Can we look beyond appearances in a world where images are so important? Is it possible to go deeper and see what’s inside another person?”

Those issues also extend to the third major character in the piece, called La Dame, a fairy who fell in love with the Prince and then put the spell on him when he rejected her. However, she has stuck around the castle to take care of him—and is not happy when La Belle shows up. “She wants to be the beauty in the house, even though she’s 60,” says Lemieux. “She still loves the prince for who he is inside. So, it becomes a triangle, but not in a conventional sense.”

What makes this version particularly unusual, however, is that only those three characters are played by onstage actors, while everyone else in the tale—including Belle’s sister—is embodied by projections with whom the stars interact. Indeed, while projection technology plays a major role in all aspects of this production, it is not the raison d’être.

“We do use technology, but we do it so we can more freely talk about human issues,” says Lemieux. “In watching theater, adults can be very critical. But when you create something magical, adults open themselves to this world of wonder. Even it’s just for the first 30 seconds, this little door opens in the mind—the door that was opened when they were children. And they immediately become less critical. And then we can talk to them in ways other than through their intellect. We can talk to their souls.”

As Pilon admits, doing a show in this fashion can be a great challenge to the actors onstage. “They don’t see the projections, so it takes a lot of time to integrate their work with the projections,” he says. “But it’s worth it, because we know you don’t touch people with just technology. You touch them with actors who believe in these projections.”

“Many of the scenes are like being in a painting,” says Lemieux. “Victor takes photographs from around the world—especially a lot of Romantic architecture—and they work their way into the projections. All of the technology is quite magical, to be sure. I say our show is like a jewel box, but it’s the actors who are the jewels.”

Since it premiered in Canada in 2010, the production has toured internationally and in the US. “It’s always exciting to us to see how different audiences react from place to place,” says Pilon. Still, Lemieux notes that most audiences share one common reaction. “A lot of people tell us they become so absorbed in the story that they feel like they’re in a dream and that they only wake up when they realize the show has ended.”

Brian Scott Lipton was editor-in-chief of and currently covers theater for IN New York, Where,, TDF Stages, and

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