Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Improbable Theatre's "Beauty and the Beast" - A Taboo-Busting Love Story of a Natural Born Freak & An American Beauty Queen (& A Very Unique Fairy Tale Retelling)

Someone should applaud what this theater company are doing - and I don't just mean the audience, who clearly have no trouble doing that. Improbable Theatre decided to explore the dark side of the heart of the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, and to look at the naked truth of love and what it means to be human, metaphorically but also literally. I think it's an interpretation Angela Carter - and Greta Garbo - would applaud as well. (There is a wonderful image that is a perfect representation of the production at the end of the post... but I'll get to that in a bit.)
This is the true love story of a natural born freak and an American beauty queen who got married. 
Internationally acclaimed and award-winning duo Mat Fraser, British disabled actor/writer and Julie Atlas Muz, American burlesque star/Miss Coney Island, bring you an adult fairytale like no other. 
Created with Phelim McDermott, artistic director of Improbable, Beauty and the Beast explores the naked truths and half-truths told in the name of love. (from the official blurb)

Improbable Theater's lead and Beast for the show, is Mat Fraser, a well renowned disabled performing artist who was born with phocomelia as a result of his mother taking Thalidomide while pregnant to counter morning sickness. His Beauty, and real life wife, is Julie Atlas Muz, aka the queen of neo-Burlesque, former Miss Coney Island and Miss Exotic World. Together they conceived the show, the themes being very close to their hearts, and brought the fairy tale to the stage to ask hard questions about love, marriage and sex, especially with regard to disabled peoples - with a good dollop of humor and honesty, both!

He has foreshortened arms and no thumbs; later in the show, Fraser will point out that it is the human thumb, some say, that separates us from the beast. (The Guardian) 
Disability arts remain something of a ghettoised scene in Britain. When they breach the mainstream, such works are often celebratory, concerned with understanding, even making disability palatable. (“Heart of gold charity orgies,” Fraser calls them.) When, for example, theatre company Told By An Idiot staged the same fairytale in 2007, Beauty was played by Lisa Hammond, an actor of restricted growth. 
Fraser and Muz take the opposite approach, confronting the perceived “beastliness” of disability and sex head-on. It’s the combination that pushes taboos. As Improbable Theatre director Phelim McDermott asks: “Sex and disability is a big issue. Can you show it on stage? Can you even talk about it?” 
McDermott has also pushed the couple to entwine personal material with the enacted fairytale. Sometimes, he says, you can’t differentiate between Beauty, Beast, Muz and Fraser. “What’s beast and what’s beauty?” he asks. “They’re all parts of ourselves. There’s a part of me that’s beautiful – somewhere. There’s a part of me that’s beastly.” That gives added weight to Fraser and Muz’s determination to change the fairytale’s ending. The original ends with a transformation, which Fraser likens to sanitised Victorian versions of King Lear. “I feel we’ve all been peddled this fake happy ending and what we’re doing is finding the original: she falls in love with the beast, dammit.” (excerpted for length from Financial Times)

I highly recommend reading the whole Financial Times article on Beauty and the Beast and disabilities in The Arts HERE. Seriously, it's an excellent article and gives you a good perspective on how non-inclusive we still are in this age of "equal rights", and how good we are at avoiding our most basic drives: the need for love and sex.
Here's a trailer in which the creators and cast take you behind-the-scenes of the show and discuss their approach (don't worry, no nudity or suggestive scenes included):
Yes - the show does carry an X-rating but from all reviews and reports*, it's for good reason (that is, it's not due to shock-value nudity and explicit scenes). Unlike a previous attempt to tell this (and their) story, in which the results came across as freakish and the nudity gratuitous, this production has been meticulously re-written and designed to put the spotlight where it should be: looking at our preconceived ideas of love. humanness and wholeness.

And here's a special fairy tale folk piece of trivia I think you'll like as much as I do: apparently, in order to do this (get the right balance in the tale and production), they needed to get back to the fairy tale-ness of the story. Without the fairy tale bones, the true meaning got lost and the nakedness of the actors on stage, rather than exposing the truth and themes as they originally intended, instead covered up the real meaning. (Ironic, yes?) Putting the fairy tale core back in, however, it made it clear what the focus is and why this is an important story to tell. (This is why fairy tales are so special and this production is a good example of why we need them.)

There's an interview with Julie Atlas Muz HERE which explains the initial concepts and production attempts in more detail, as well as how the show eventually got to where it is now. (Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment was apparently a key influence.) Along with the Financial Times article, it also gives additional background on Muz and Fraser's relationship, which directly impacted the show concept in the first place.

As far as the production goes, of which you can see some lovely pics here (I omitted the adult shots, of course, but you can see some more in the gallery HERE - no gratuitous nudity included, though there is one shot in which one of the characters has been body-painted and you can see painted breasts - nothing your art classics haven't already shown you in more detail)...
There are nods to Jean Cocteau and Disney in Phelim McDermott's production, which cleverly entwines appealing, homemade animation and puppetry (fine work from Jess Mabel Jones and Jonny Dixon) to create a show that both celebrates great gothic romance and also strips away all the artifice to reveal the workings underneath. The show lures you in with dreaminess and then gets all beady-eyed and goaty. 
The moment of transformation here is not when the Beast is suddenly revealed as a prince, but on a New York street in broad daylight when Fraser and Muz realise they simply can't wait to get into bed with each other. Even so, it's not plain sailing for the former Beauty Queen (Miss Coney Island) and the man who realises the career-advancing possibilities of prosthetic arms: Fraser uses them to perform an erotic strip. Muz's mother enquires of her daughter: "Are you sure you want to marry a cripple?" The answer is a resounding yes in a show that takes disability out of the theatrical ghetto and presents it full frontal. (excerpt from a review in The Guardian)

This "adult fairy tale" not only contains full female and male nudity, it has some explicit scenes as well. The actors themselves will remind you that despite it's name and how fairy tale the production is, it's not a family show and is recommended for audiences 18+ only. Beauty and the Beast will be playing at the Young Vic in London until December 21st. You can find more information and tickets HERE.

PS Now that you've read what the show is about, how great a pic is this? Though I'm in no hurry to see people naked together this image blatantly says so much about both the fairy tale and the show's themes. It's actually perfect for the production and, as I wrote above, I wanted to use it at the head of the post but was concerned it would turn people off reading about it. Even if you don't opt to see the show, should it play locally to you, I think this is an important production to be aware of - and not just for fairy tale folk either. If anyone sees a play transcript floating about, I'd love to read it!

*Note: just because the nudity and explicit scenes aren't your average adult show titillations, doesn't mean it's for every adult either. It should just be clear that these aspects are used for a specific reason in this show, and that, in this case, it works.

1 comment:

  1. The 1976 verrsion is on dvd