Those who imagine Capital Fringe as a festival with a wealth of heart and a dearth of sophistication, especially in the realm of production design, have clearly not seen the breathtaking costumes and hallucinatory design of Belle and the Beasties, a fascinating sequel-of-sorts to Beauty and the Beast mounted by alumni of DC’s own National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. A well-oiled ensemble brings to life a Day-Glo Gothic fairytale that skips lightly over that age-old theme, Good v. Evil, all under the ultraviolet glow of black light.
It is difficult to sum up Belle and the Beasties. A la Wicked, it’s a twisted fairy tale that includes a little dance, a lot of humor, and some basic Good vs. Evil themes reminiscent of an adult children’s show. Imagine, if you will, that the Beast doesn’t turn back into a man at the end of the movie, because the evil Enchantress (played with voluptuous power by Samantha Williams), isn’t quite finished with him yet. He is sucked through the magic mirror into a Midsummer-esque land of strange creatures who worship the Beast. We learn that the Beast’s crimes may be greater than Disney has revealed to us, and that he may be more beast than man after all.
One of the highlights of the show, aside from the literal highlighter colors, is the ensemble itself. Ashley Milligan offers a refreshingly different take on Belle, one that is a little less kind and gentle and a little more entitled. Thomas Ellis plays an ancient Pan-esque goat character named Amoro who cracks some of the funniest lines in the show (“THAT’S right: I’M a wizard”). William Neal Kenyon is a powerful stage presence as the Beast himself, and Jenna Lawrence can give any Disney villainess a run for her money as the creepy Harbinger.
We learn that the world of the beasties is fraught with conflict between the rather hedonistic good monsters (played with Puckish charm by Nahm Darr) and the evil woks (portrayed with Synetic-ish malice by Jordan Couick, Erika Jones, Maxwell Sparta, and Samantha Williams). While the good beasties just want to eat, sleep, and dance, the Woks seek fulfillment by stepping on other people. This classic Good vs. Evil, goodies vs. meanies theme is more reminiscent of a children’s show than anything else, and if the creatures weren’t so terrifying I could see this show adapted for Imagination Stage.
It is the design that really makes Belle and the Beasties stand out as one of the must-see shows at Fringe. Costume Designer Melissa Kolb Meerdter brings us fantastical rock creatures, exquisite horns, and tribal Day-Glo designs that shimmer under the black light. It’s like a Peyote Disney World Rave, and my eyes were wide from the first moment to the last. Doug Wilder, who along with writing and directing also designed the set and lights, deserves a lot of credit for packing in maximum technical impact into a Festival whose time requirements discourage complexity in production design.
While the script is uneven in parts and there were some technical glitches, Belle and the Beasties remains an imaginative play with a brilliant design that dazzles the eye and ear. We are all Disney kids at heart, and if you’re like me and you can’t resist a twisted fairy tale, you’ve got to check this one out.
Belle and the Beasties plays through July 25, 2015, at Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab II – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.