Beauty and the Beast
Synetic’s Beauty and the Beast’s expressionistic shadow puppetry; Credit: Elman Studios

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On March 4, 2023, Paata Tsikurishvili walked onto Synetic Theater’s stage to applause. For some in the audience, the appearance of Synetic’s co-founder and artistic director was a surprise. The evening had been long planned as the opening for his adaptation of H.G. WellsThe War of the Worlds, but on Nov. 30, he was seriously injured in a car accident. By all appearances, his broken bones have mended and he is proud of what the company has accomplished during his healing. War of the Worlds may be delayed until this fall, but Synetic has beautifully remounted its 2014 staging of Beauty and the Beast.

“Beauty and the Beast” first appeared in 1740 as a novel-length story within Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s The Young American and Marine Tales. Two years later, it was first adapted for the stage as Love for Love by Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée. Villeneuve’s story would be abridged, streamlined, rewritten, and adapted countless times over the centuries (often without crediting her) before the Disney media conglomerate put its chattering candelabra and talking teacups spin on the material.

Adapted by Ben and Peter Cunis and co-directed by Ben and Vato Tsikurishvili (Synetic remains a company centered around a family), this telling begins with a shadow puppet of a crow who announces “crows can’t talk.” But this talking crow narrates the story being projected onto a set of shadow screens set in gothic arches (scenic design by Phil Charlwood, and bathed in color and chiaroscuro by lighting designer Brian Allard). Cast by puppets designed by Zana Gankhuyag a phantasmagoria of shadows commences: precise hand gestures and actors in silhouette tell of a prince who ventures into a magical forest, and falls in love with a goddess. The king, in turn, orders the execution of his son’s beloved, bringing a curse upon the land. For not standing against his father, the prince becomes the horned, satyr-like Beast (Gankhuyag) and the goddess becomes our narrating crow Emmeranne (Rachael Small).

Emmeranne, the only speaker in the show, is a sly raconteur who carries with her the trauma of her betrayal and the destruction of her forest. Small’s performance of balletic steps, stillnesses, and waves of her arms recall the movement of the crow. Her costume—a black shawl and gown designed by Delaney Theisz with iridescent greens, blues, and purples like a crow’s feathers—puts a sympathetic face to the fairy-tale archetype of a sorceress casting curses. Emmeranne is bitter, but not petty—afterall, somebody did try to kill her for falling in love with the wrong person—and the story asks the open-ended question: Can she heal or forgive or is forgiveness even warranted?

In contrast to the magical goings-on, there is the often comic mundanity of the village where the widowed merchant Jean Paul (Irakli Kavsadze) lives with his daughters Claudette (Nutsa Tediashvili), Marie (Irene Hamilton), and Belle (Irina Kavsadze). Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili crafts some slapstick out of Claudette and Marie’s rivalries, and a hilarious pas de deux as suitor Avenant (Jacob Thompson) attempts to come between Belle and a favorite book.

Irina Tsikurishvili’s choreography also works wonders within the Beast’s castle. Philip Fletcher, as the Beast’s head butler, Magnificent (a name given to the magic horse in some versions of the story), performs wonderful mime work. And the ensemble, clad in gray unitards and masked with dispassionate expressions, become living statuary, at once magical servants and sculptural adornments, recalling without duplicating the busts and disembodied arms in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film adaptation. They hold up the table during the first awkward meal between Belle and Beast, and it is from their hands that roses bloom as Belle applies her talents to the garden. Likewise, the choreography creates a sense of labyrinthine vastness to the castle as Tsikurishvili’s work includes not just the performers, but set elements moving about on wheels. 

Irina Kavsadze as Belle with Zana Gankhuyag as the Beast in Synetic’s Beauty and the Beast; Credit: Elman Studios

Co-director Vato provides some thrilling fight choreography with Gankhuyag executing flying kicks and somersaults in a fight with a pack of wolves played by the ensemble, and a sword fight between Beast and Avenant, the failed suitor who imagines himself the Beast’s rival.

Villeneuve wrote in pre-Revolutionary times, and at one point, when the Beast is at his most tyrannical, Emmeranne reminds us that, unlike today when laws are set in writing, laws at this time were in the decrees of lords and kings. The fairy-tale genre doesn’t allow for wicked princes to be replaced by democratic regimes: They are either reformed through the kindness of a woman or the removal of an evil influence. It’s a trope is seen in the work of Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile (1583–1632), whose Il Pentamerone was essentially the first published collection of European fairy tales, and Antoine Galland (1646–1715), whose French translation of One Thousand and One Nights had become widely available before Villeneuve launched her literary career. 

While this Beast isn’t as beastly as some other fairy-tale princes and kings, his redemption follows the trope. But Gankhuyag cleverly portrays the character’s evolution by making the Beast’s posture become increasingly upright as he regains his humanity—even before being restored as a handsome prince. However, both the Brothers Cunis and Synetic offer an ambiguity that allows for nuance: Because of this Avenant can be both pompously silly and violently jealous and Emmeranne can grieve without wanting to stand in the way of her former lover finding happiness at last. She reminds us to be skeptical of fairy-tale cliches precisely because they satisfy our need for closure—this is what makes Synetic’s telling of Beauty and the Beast appropriate for adults.

Beauty and the Beast, adapted for the stage by Ben and Peter Cunis from Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s original story and directed by Ben Cunis and Vato Tsikurishvili runs through April 2 at Synetic Theater. $35–$65.