It might be best known as the tale as old as time, but University Players stunning new version of the classic tale of Beauty and the Beast is a storytelling masterpiece. Students in the University of Windsor’s internationally recognized, pre-professional acting program have crafted one of the best plays in their storied history. It’s currently being staged at Essex Hall Theatre until Sunday (Dec. 8).
Armed with nothing more than some clever clothing choices, a few handheld props and a giant pop-up book, the tale of Beauty and the Beast unfolds in glorious storybook fashion as eight actors narrate, act and dance through various scenes from the Laurence Boswell stage version of the show, which draws on the origins of the tale from French folklore that got its literary foundation from a 1740 fairy tale written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.
There is nothing Disney about this production at all – no Gaston, no dancing dishes, no singing clocks and no grand musical numbers. The play stays true to the Boswell adaption, which is beautifully written, well-crafted and simply delightful to watch. It may take a few minutes to adapt to the foreign elements introduced in this version (like Beauty’s three brothers and two self-serving sisters), but audiences are quickly sucked in by the great cast, who take turns to narrate the story.
Director Monica Dottor uses her chorus of eight dancers to create a physical recreation of the fairy-tale land and the ethereal creatures we meet in the story. Much of the time, characters are whisked away in beautifully choreographed sequences that sometimes involve being carried in flight and other times prancing around the stage on horses.
We all know the basics of the story. When Beauty’s father hears that his long-lost ship packed with pearls has landed safely in harbour, he sets out on a long, difficult journey to claim his fortune and rescue his family from poverty. But when, stumbling across a magic world belonging to a fearsome beast, he picks a rose as a present for his favourite daughter, the family find themselves in a nightmarish predicament from which only Beauty can rescue them.
The Players take us on a journey through various rooms in the Beast’s home through the use of a cleaver backdrop of revolving entrances and exits designed by Joshua Quinlan. Actors prance around the stage and discretely tuck out of the way through one of the many escape routes the backdrop provides. It felt almost Alice In Wonderlandish as the scenes moved around several magical rooms (like the room of mirrors, the room of harmony and the room of clowns) that Beauty visits during her lonely stay in the palace.
I was extremely skeptical of a bare-staged retelling of such a visual play, but somehow Dottor uses that naked stage to her advantage and forces the audience to concentrate on this capable cast, the incredible storytelling and the delightful dance sequences. And as a result, it feels like the most wonderful bedtime story ever told.
The cast was fabulous. Olivia Ridpath was a gorgeous Beauty. Her smile was infectious and her charm is one of the captivating reasons the show was so good. Jamar Adams-Thompson, who played Beast, the Prince and the Third Brother, countered her exquisiteness as the Beast, using both a grotesque mask and a waving wall of flowers in the garden to expose the harsh and dark quirks of his character. In contrast, when we see him as the Prince, he’s both charming and electric.
The rest of the cast are wonderful storytellers, both aural and visual. Haiden Lyle (father), Katy Chapman (Mother/Witch), Robyn Gallop (Sister 1/Beauty’s Lady), Natalia Martin (Sister 2/Beast’s Horse), Cullen MacNaughton (Brother 1/Fire) and Jonathan Lombard (Brother 2/Beast’s Man) looked amazing in the vaudeville-inspired looks designed by Esther Van Eek.
We attended a special sensory-limited relaxed performance on Saturday afternoon for guests who would benefit from a more relaxed sensory experience and casual environment, including patrons with an Autism Spectrum condition, a sensory processing disorder, or a learning disability. While I would prefer to enjoy the show sitting in darkness, the dim lights did provide a casual and non-threatening environment that many seemed to benefit from. Saturday’s show also had some children in attendance, who, despite a dramatic two-hour presentation, stayed seated and fairly quiet.
Kudos to fourth year Drama in Education student Sarah Richards who came up with the concept. By introducing some minor production changes to reduce the intensity of light, sound and other startling effects, she enhanced the accessibility of the play to almost all audiences. It created a more relaxed approach to noise and movement within the theatre space.
This was a unique and marvelous play that brought Beauty and the Beast to life like I’d never seen before. It was rustic, beautiful and felt like someone dusted off an old fairy tale book.
Beauty and the Beast continues Wednesday through Sunday this week (Dec. 4-8) at Essex Hall Theatre at the University of Windsor. Tickets are available at online or by calling the box office at 519-253-3000, ext. 2808. Kids’ admission is just $8, and regular price tickets start at $19. For more information, visit http://www.uwindsor.ca/universityplayers/.