As retold by the Arden Theatre's favorite children's playwright, Charles Hay, Beauty and the Beast is a scary, sparely staged story about a family literally and figuratively adrift upon a rough sea. And it's the Beast's fault, all of it - the father whose life and livelihood are sunk, a daughter whose impending marriage is doomed.
This leaves Belle, the Beauty, to save the day and take on the horrid Beast, on a stage whose set design is a little more than a series of tall, pale scrims and handmade cutout props - wooden fish, ship's wheels and the like - through which actors shine flashlights to looming, frightening effect.
"Shadows are embedded in the script. Dreams within dreams, so to speak," says Whit MacLaughlin, a veteran director of such Arden Children's Theater fare as A Year With Frog and Toad and James and the Giant Peach. "We just took it really far with this one." This isn't soft-core Disney, though MacLaughlin thinks the Disney version is spellbinding. "Ours is just different, antimatter to Disney, really."
The spooky, arresting visual life of this Beauty and the Beast comprises shadow work, actors, and the surfaces on which they project. Behind it are director MacLaughlin (also known for New Paradise Laboratories' very adult, ensemble-based leaps into sex, drugs, and ritual abandon) and Sebastienne Mundheim, the show's "shadow and object design consultant."
"It's an odd title, to be sure, but I didn't want something that stepped on the toes of the choreographer, the set or the lighting designer," says Mundheim, founder of Philadelphia's White Box Theatre, who has written, directed, and acted in her own shows as well as with such locals as choreographer Kate Watson-Wallace, avant-garde storyteller Thaddeus Phillips, and MacLaughlin's New Paradise.
Here, her job is as nebulous as the shadows in which she traffics. Working within the sphere of shadows and smoke may be a somewhat recent experience for her, but she has dealt with puppets for several Philadelphia companies (notably winning a 2014 Barrymore Award for Lantern Theater Company's A Child's Christmas in Wales), and in 2010 received a Philadelphia Theatre Initiative Fellowship to study with South Africa's famed Handspring Puppet Company.
"Having longtime experience with puppets means I could suggest something to an actor about finishing a gesture in a particular, puppet-y manner," she says.
"Shadow play" (or "shadow puppetry") is theater at its most ancient, the creation of cutout puppets, shapes or objects, then using various light sources to heighten their effect and create motion. In the opening nightmare sequence of Beauty and the Beast, one of Mundheim's cutout fish appears to swallow a boat, flapping its jaws while lit by an actor's flashlight behind a ring of curtains, while Belle (Emilie Krause) sleeps unsoundly.
Mundheim speaks passionately and thoughtfully about her shadow-making process. "When you get down to it, there's not much there, save for the shadow makers and the shadows. But there are such beautiful metaphoric things to consider, like the transformation of perspective coming from where you place the light source and where you shine it."
In this universe of hers, eight-inch cutout trees bathed in a warm yellow light can look as "sweet as a Christmas ornament." Given a sharper hue at a different angle, they can become 14-foot monstrosities. "That duality is profound and beautiful," she says.
This vision - of both the ominous and the tender - says something about the agency of the shadow-maker herself, a display of emotion and personality as rich as any actor's. Says MacLaughlin, "Sebastienne combines the perspectives of a visual artist with those of a dancer. She's a black belt in karate, you know."
Says Mundheim, "Whit and I had conversations about what shadows are, what is scary, what is fear, how do shadows represent those fears, and how it all plays into the psychological aspects of the story." The challenge was making her shadow images cool and thought-provoking for an audience of children - which is how she got into the realm of shadows in the first place.
Before Beauty and the Beast, she and MacLaughlin toyed with shadow play in April when their family-centric organization PAPAYA (PA Performing Arts for Young Audiences) celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Annenberg Center's Philadelphia International Children's Festival with their interpretation of Patch Theatre's Me and My Shadow as well as their original collaboration Shadowtown. The latter found kids in the audiences taking part in the action, making hand-shadow animals and cutout shadow puppets as part of an interactive installation.
"Our work this spring definitely influenced Beauty and the Beast," says Mundheim. "We made these fantastical cardboard cutouts with 200 kids workshopping those designs in the lobby of the Annenberg, experimenting with how shadows bend and move."
Watching 200 "little creatures" dancing across those walls inspired her and MacLaughlin. "It was amazing to see the focus that kids got when they're playing with shadows. It's captivating to make shadows move."
Beauty and the Beast
Through Feb. 8 at Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St.