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'La Belle' begins new chapter for Imago

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Long-awaited work is mashup of stories


COURTESY: IMAGO THEATRE - Jim Vadala plays Sam Stoker and Justine Davis plays Lady Rose as they star alongside puppets in Imago Theatre's ambitious mashup 'La Belle, Lost in the World of Automaton.'The long wait is almost over, the end of the project is near. After about three years of planning and fabricating, writing and rewriting and trying to perfect the imperfections, Imago Theatre is ready to unveil “La Belle, Lost in the World of the Automaton” in December.

The company that put on “Frogz” at theaters around the country for 35 years ventured out to explore further with “La Belle,” casting two real people and automaton entities in what Imago describes as a mashup of “Willy Wonka” and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Steamboat Willy” and “Beauty and the Beast.” The theme taps into the original “Beauty and the Beast” novel written by French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and published in 1740; there have been adaptations since then. And, co-artistic directors Jerry Mouawad and Carol Triffle say, there’s some “Mary Poppins” flair there, too.

A long and involved play? Yes. But, the brains behind Imago wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s complex, but as it goes by, it won’t feel complex,” Mouawad says. “A lot of stuff takes a long time to make. Then it goes by fast. It’s like an animation studio that might work on a 30-second scene for six months.

“To be completely honest, it’s been very difficult. What I’ve been enjoying the most is the new discoveries, twists and turns in the plot. ... It started three years ago with a script that we threw out, a second script, and 23 months of making things.” Early rehearsals were in January and February, and full rehearsals started in mid-October.

“What is uplifting about it is when we feel things are not working in terms of story or charm of the piece, we brainstorm and discover. ... Every original production that I’ve done is a puzzle, and you’re not sure what the puzzle is. Once you put the pieces together, the puzzle tells you what it is. The puzzle is starting to reveal itself. We’re getting close to a good evening for family audiences that has unique elements to it.”

COURTESY: IMAGO THEATRE - Puppets are aplenty in Imago Theatre's new show.Building the set, puppets and ornate fixtures took time, and everything was made to be part of a touring show. Like “Frogz” and later “ZooZoo,” Imago plans to take “La Belle” on tour in 2017, after it stages at Imago Theatre for the first time, Dec. 9 through Jan. 8.

“It’s complicated because there’s a lot of nonverbal action happening,” Triffle says. “With puppets, we have to find out what works with them. It’s the same thing as when you do (‘ZooZoo’) creatures and people, they become really large or small in action. We had to cut the big Beast character and made a small Beast, and that was more effective. That’s why it takes a long time. We’re doing things we’ve never done on stage before.”

Along with puppets — run by both mechanics and puppeteers — there are elements of clowning and shadow theater, movement and song. “It’s why I wrote it up as a mashup,” Mouawad says.

The story? Well, “it’s a story within a story within a ship,” he adds.

It’s about two characters, Lady Rose (played by Justine Davis) and Sam Stoker (played by Jim Vadala), and is set in a 1920s engine room on a steamship sailing somewhere off the coast of Europe. Puppets, shadows and effects enhance the story, as water wheels turn, giant stacks pump, whistles chirp, and automaton puppets magically appear from holes in the hull to reveal backstories of curses and spells brought on by good and evil fairies.

The automatons have been built by Stoker from things left behind by vacationers on the steamship. A giant steamer trunk that winds up and becomes a large music box is home to Belle, her foster father and three wicked sisters.

The complicated gear systems were created by Lance Woolen, Imago’s director of fabrication, and Roger Nelson, mechanical engineer. There is both real and faux automata; faux meaning run by puppeteers Erin Chmela and Woolen, who joined the project in 2015 to develop the characters.

“When we wrote the script, we were quite ambitious,” Mouawad says. Then reality set in about complexity and execution. “It’s quite a large project for little Imago.”

COURTESY: IMAGO THEATRE - 'La Belle' took a long time to produce for Imago Theatre because of all the puppets and other logistics.Lady Rose joins Sam in the engine room during a storm. They fall in love, a la “Beauty and the Beast,” while they share the story of “La Belle et la Bete.”

Mouawad and Triffle wrote the play with Devin Stinson, a hip-hop artist. Amanda and Alyssa Payne added their hip-hop musical sound, and Lydia Ooghe wrote opening and closing songs that have a ragtime feel.

It’s been different than developing creatures, as in “Frogz” and “ZooZoo,” and adding to the story as it goes along.

“This is a scripted play where we put tons of visual material in,” Mouawad says. And, with the different storylines and images, it’s meant to appeal to both adults and kids.

“We’re trying to create a show for our nationwide audiences. There are 100 to 200 theaters in the country that have seen ‘Frogz’ and ‘ZooZoo,’ and a lot of them are interested in seeing something new” when it goes on tour.

Says Triffle: “For kids it’ll be exciting, there are a lot of visuals going on, and for adults it’s geared to stimulate them with the script. Like ‘ZooZoo,’ there’s a little bit for everybody.”

Triffle relates the opening of “La Belle” to the first time she and Mouawad staged penguins in “ZooZoo.”

On a whim and with a tour show at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, fast approaching, they put a bit about penguins playing musical chairs into the show.

“I was so nervous it was going to be a flop,” Triffle says, of penguins playing musical chairs. “Penguins came on, the audience thought they were rock stars and, ‘Oh my god, it works!’”

We’ll have more as the show “La Belle, Lost in the World of the Automaton” gets closer to staging, Dec. 9-Jan. 8. To buy tickets, call 503-231-9581 or go online at www.TicketsWest.com.

For more on Imago Theatre: www.imagotheatre.com.