If I Were a Belle: This fairy tale is no Disney fluff.
If I Were a Belle: This fairy tale is no Disney fluff. Credit: Johnny Shryock

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Introducing Synetic Theater’s fresh and frightening adaptation of the 275-year-old French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast at its press performance, company co-founder and CEO Paata Tsikurishvili promoted the show as “family-friendly.” And it is, in the sense that it contains no nudity or rude words. (It’s got words, though, be warned.) But don’t expect cheerful musical numbers or a tea service that speaks in the matronly tones of Angela Lansbury.

In fact, if there’s an early ’90s fantasy film this ethereal, somber show recalls, it’s not Disney’s beloved animated Beauty and the Beast, but Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from a year later—a blood-soaked, sex-drenched, more-faithful-to-the-novel-than-usual gloss on the oft-told tale that briefly turns its titular lovesick vampire into a furry beast. The visual effects are almost entirely low-fi techniques performed live on set and dating back to the dawn of cinema, giving the movie an intentionally handmade quality that somehow plays as dreamlike and otherworldly instead of cheap.

Synetic’s Beast spares us the blood and buries the sex in subtext (subsext?), but it’s similarly canny and low-tech in its illusions—especially the shadow puppets designed by Zana Gankhuyag—and just as inventive in its reimagining of a powerful old story too often declawed. In fact, “it’s debatable whose story this is,” to quote the witch who casts that beastly spell upon the prince in the first place. Director Ben Cunis’ script (adapted from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s 18th-century story with Cunis’ brother, Peter) promotes the witch into the tale’s narrator—she handles most of the talking, in fact. She’s also a key character: She was the prince’s first lover, Emmeranne, from long before “beautiful, buxom, busy Belle” (to which Disney appended “bookish”) shows up at his dank castle. When the prince’s royal confederates burn Emmeranne as a witch, her sorcery from the flames ensnares the prince, too. All that didactic stuff about how the vain prince earned his hirsute makeover by being too focused on appearances was a post-Villeneuve add, like a sugary cereal getting enriched with vitamins.

Renata Veberyte Loman is menacing yet humane as Emmeranne, gliding about the stage in Kendra Rai’s raven-motif costume. (She’s also represented by a raven puppet in the bookends of the tale.) Matthew Alan Ward’s Fantome—a character whose purpose eluded me, though he looks great—gets tricked out in feathers, too. As the beast whose horns curl behind his head like a ram’s, Vato Tsikurishvili embodies the grace and kineticism we expect from Synetic performers. We already know they’re great at hurling themselves at people and objects—the combative choreography is, as always, devised by Synetic co-founder Irina Tsikurishvili—but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling to watch the beast leap up the sheer face of the two curved ramps that figure into Daniel Pinha’s murky set, or slide down the concave side when swooning over Belle (Irina Kavsadze). His physical transformations, depicted in silhouette behind a scrim through a clever mix of jerky dance moves and puppetry, feel genuinely dangerous. These body-horror scenes are accompanied by composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s familiar electronic bleeps and bloops, but the score (credited to Lortkipanidze, Clint Herring, and Andrew Gerlicher) also includes a haunting piano theme that followed me home, a Synetic first. If the Disney version of the story is the one most familiar to you, here’s a still-safe-for-the-kiddies arrangement that doesn’t elide the story’s stranger possibilities.

1800 South Bell St., Arlington. $15-$60. (703) 824-8060. synetictheater.org