LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE created by Michel Lemieux, Victor Pilon and Pierre-Yves Lemieux, translated by Maureen Labonté, with Diane D’Aquila, Bénédicte Décary, Stéphane Demers and Anne-Marie Cadieux. Presented by Lemieux Pilon 4D Art and Luminato at the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Opens Friday (June 8) and runs to Tuesday (June 12), Friday-Saturday and Monday-Tuesday 7:30 pm, matinees Saturday 2 pm and Sunday 3 pm. $49-$99. 416-368-4849, luminato.com. See listing.
Don't look for anything disneyfied in La Belle Et La Bête, Lemieux Pilon 4D Art's contemporary retelling of the tale in which a troubled woman and a disfigured man discover love's redemptive power.
That modern element also figures in the presentational style: creator/directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon have live performers interact with characters created through virtual reality.
"Jean Cocteau, in his 40s film La Belle Et La Bête, introduced us to the possibility of having the traditional French fairy tale make a different sort of statement," says Lemieux from the company's Montreal studio. "[Our production] isn't a tribute or an adaptation of Cocteau, but something quite original."
In this telling, written by Pierre-Yves Lemieux, Belle is a painter whose father withdraws emotionally when her mother dies in a car accident; she uses art to try to make sense of her world. The man is another grief-stricken figure, one who fears intimacy. He's turned into a beast when he unintentionally scars himself.
The script's third character is La Dame, a figure from an early French version of the story. Here, she's the narrator, an older woman who becomes the man's protector after his parents' deaths and harbours an unspoken love for him.
"Our first question when we started working was what themes to address," recalls Pilon, who's collaborated with Lemieux since the 90s. "We decided to explore appearance and what lies beneath the surface.
"Is it possible, especially in today's world, to fall in love with the soul rather than the person we see? Given the virtual reality we live with every day on the internet and various electronic media, how do we sort out reality from fantasy?"
Despite the fantasy element inherent in fairy tales, the two artists say the narratives we hear in childhood are key to understanding the world.
"Bedtime stories like La Belle Et La Bête are part of our DNA, and not just intended for youngsters," muses Lemieux. "The psychological and emotional weight they carry are part of the way we live and function in life.
"In this tale especially, which deals with what we see and what's hidden underneath, it's appropriate that we not only talk about appearance but also use it, use the imagery we create onstage, to show how it conditions us to view other people."
That imagery is pretty impressive. Check out the online clips at 4dart.com/home.html in which a horse gallops across the stage, a young man fights with an earlier version of himself, characters have virtual sex and La Dame reveals her inner desires.
"The hard part isn't filming the virtual reality - it's having the actors interact and play with what's invisible to them," admits Pilon. "When the actors believe in what they're doing, so will the audience."
"We really need the live performers, not just the technology," agrees Lemieux. "Our job is to use the latter without turning the actors into machines.
"In the end, it's not about having the actors and the virtual world working side by side, but instead collaborating in an integrated fashion. The result isn't pure theatre, pure cinema or pure design, but rather a multiplication of those various arts to create a sense of wonder."