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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 311-313

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Beauty. By Tina Landau. La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla, California. 19 October 2003.

In the fall production of Beauty at the La Jolla Playhouse, Tina Landau retells the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. The play's time is "A thousand years ago and the present" and the place is "Nearby and far away." Landau's play with music moves rapidly forward and back in time, gathering steam, momentum, and questions until the prince and princess lean in for the kiss. The fairy tale, though fractured, remains intact.

Landau's updating is in the details. This princess does not want to be called princess and she stomps on tables with men in pubs; this prince studies philosophy and cannot sleep without Ambien. This sleeping beauty must learn to learn as she goes backward in time searching for why she is asleep. This prince must push through the briar bushes, learning to unlearn the cynicism found in his Wittgenstein and Nietzsche to surrender to the beauty he finds asleep. [End Page 311]

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Figure 1
(L to R) Simone Vicari Moore as Madeleine, Kelli O'Hara as Rose and Amy Stewart as Queen Marguerite. Photo: Scott Humbert.

Constance, the crone with the heart of gold played by Lisa Harrow, narrates the tale. Beginning with "Once upon a time," she quickly stops herself: "uh no, excuse me" and must rewrite her story. Harrow has a lyric delivery that sweeps us into the poetry of the piece without landing too hard on some of the more self-consciously clever word play. Constance lures James into the search for beauty with a menacing tone that conveys the danger that awaits him. Jason Danieley plays James with the mouth full of irony the part calls for. His face conveys a softness that his philosophy and wisecracking academic ways attempt to cover.

As James fights his way through the briars and his own demons he jettisons his backpack with his cell phone, philosophy books, and Ambien. Meanwhile, Rose, the sleeping princess, goes back in time to her name-day celebration to learn why she's asleep. As Rose, Kelli O'Hara has the fairy-tale beauty one would expect of the role and the spit-fire personality necessary to make us question it. Racing around the stage, O'Hara's energy drives the play. This is not the kind of Disney princess who warbles love songs while looking longingly and passively out at the horizon. This princess is driven to be her own prince charming.

Many elements of Landau's Beauty feel as if they are timid steps in an exciting direction. The few songs included are, in and of themselves, good pieces, but they side-track the story rather than add to it. For example, Rose's first song romanticizes her status as an innocent princess, but she next sings a raucous song about drinking with the boys. Playing the court nobility and moving stage flats, the ensemble helps tell the story. Since the ensemble remains largely unlit, it is unclear if one is to ignore it, like the stage hands in black who come out to help move scenery, or to theorize on its communal nature of storytelling.

The set begins bare and cavernous, with flats on wheels painted to seem appropriate both in and [End Page 312] out of the fairy world. As the play progresses, the ensemble moves pieces around the space as the story requires. Within the simple set, the story seems immediate and rough, as if it is being pulled together for an urgent telling in front of our eyes. The briar bush is made of two-by-fours and thus has the rough-hewn feeling of the castle flats. This effect is belied, however, by the majesty of their descent on the stage from above.

However, Landau can make the simple breathtaking. She sculpts bodies and stage pictures to tell stories visually. When the first Prince Charming (Adam Smith) woos Rose, Landau shapes the gesture—his leg forward and his hat extended—to evoke the...


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