Beauty and the Beast

Mar 11, 2015

Was this show mistakenly programmed for the Festival when it was meant to be part of the Fringe?

Surprisingly, the Disney animation of the same name seems to offer more poignancy than the real-life presentation of this true love story of the husband and wife performers: UK disabled artist, actor and musician Mat Fraser and American burlesque star Julie Atlas Muz.

Beauty and the Beast is a collaboration between Fraser, Muz and Improbable Theatre director Phelim McDermott. It re-tells the 18th-century fairytale in a traditional Gothic setting with some clever use of puppetry, shadow play and burlesque.

At the start of the show, Fraser explains that he is missing his thumbs and some of his arm bones as a result of Thalidomide-induced phocomelia, and tells how he and Muz fell in love while working on a cabaret together. But that is as about as much information as you get about their relationship; the story is more about the fairytale.

Fraser and Muz are engaging performers. They are confident and relaxed as they playfully confront disability and sexuality. Muz’s voluptuous blonde beauty is in obvious contrast to Fraser’s phocomelia, yet he is certainly no “beast”. Fraser is partially clad in a faun suit from the beginning of the show, exposing his “small and perfectly deformed arms” and a pair of long, strong legs and butt cheeks.

The couple’s physical attraction is made obvious without any hint of subtlety as they dine together on certain fruits. Additional props are provided by Jess Mabel Jones and Jonny Dixon as puppeteers – they furnish the Beast with their own arms, operate the overhead projector for the shadow-play and use other props, such as tissue paper, to great effect.

As the story unfolds, more and more flesh is revealed. While the high level of nudity is not offensive, the lack of expressed sentiment between the couple and depth to which any emotional hurdles are explored is frustrating.

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The show’s heavy use of burlesque seems to trivialise the relationship between Muz and Fraser, and preclude the audience from really getting to know them; from gaining insight and empathy. But maybe that’s the point – the challenges are in the minds of the audience only.

Beauty and the Beast feels like it lacks complexity. I was disappointed afterwards, having expected to experience something profound and enlightening …. but, on second thoughts, perhaps I did.

Beauty and the Beast is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, until March 15. Note: this show contains nudity and sex scenes.

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