Some think the story of “Beauty and the Beast” originated with the 1991 Disney movie. In fact, it is “ancient – with scholars finding the source 4000 years back,” said Allan Stevens, founding director alongside Christopher and Mayfield Piper of the Puppet Co.
“But we know the story best from the version that appeared in Andrew Lang Blue Fairy Book (1899), the first of a multivolume collection of folk and fairy tales,” he said.
The Puppet Co. is presenting its own version of the story – with marionettes.
In the Disney movie, the widowed father at the core of the story has only one daughter. In the Lang/Puppet Co. version, he has three daughters named Vanity, Pride and Beauty.
“The rest of the story is pretty much the same as the Disney and the Jean Cocteau French black-and-white movie that inspired it, except here the sisters are the real villains of the story,” said Stevens, who is directing. “They try to prevent Beauty from going back to the Beast, who was turned into a Beast because of his pride and vanity.”
In 2010, the Puppet Co. decided to include the script by Terry Snyder in its repertory – with “some rewrites and remounting,” Stevens said.
The Puppet Co. has set this production in imperial Russia – because of the grandeur of the court.
“The sets really are gorgeous,” Stevens said. “When we moved into our new space in 2004, we redesigned it for the space.
Adults might be interested in the fairy tale’s history, Stevens said, but children don’t worry about which version of the story they’re seeing.
“They just enjoy it,” he said. “In fact, if the performance is up to quality, the puppeteers disappear.”
This performance of “Beauty and the Beast” is brought to life by a team of two puppeteers, and brings together a relative novice with a veteran performer.
The novice, Jackie Madejski, is puppeteering for the second time, having made her debut performance in a Capital Fringe show called “Normal/Magic,” in which she operated and voiced a sea lion.
The seasoned veteran pulling the strings is Joshua Rosenblum, whose puppetry experience dates to his high school days, when he took his first official puppet-building lessons from David Valentine, who now works for the eponymous company founded by late Muppets creator Jim Henson.
Rosenblum – who also teaches theater and film at Arlington’s H.B Woodlawn school – said he “can’t remember” how many shows he’s done with The Puppet Co. in the five-plus years since his debut, which came in a production of “The Nutcracker.”
One thing both performers have learned – with some difficulty – is that sometimes, puppeteers must voice a puppet other than the one in their hands.
“It’s hard to sync up puppet movement with another person’s voice,” Madejski explained. “You might have an instinct to reach out a hand, for example, but if the voice doesn’t support that choice, it can look weird. That’s why we have rehearsal.”
Rosenblum loves the fact that in puppetry, “anybody can play anybody,” whether it be the show’s star, a co-star or a supporting character.
“It’s a theatrical presentation that allows for truly blind casting,” he said.
While Madejski was “in love” with the Disney movie growing up, Puppet Co.’s version allows the audience to “see the relationship between Beauty and the Beast grow from prisoner and jailer, to friends, to marriage in a way that the movie doesn’t do justice.”
Rosenblum loved the beautiful cinematography and unique take of the Cocteau film as well.
“This production, which pulls from lots of sources, is a lovely unique combo of a lot of the ‘right’ things about each,” he said.
Of course, he added, getting to play the Beast – finding the balance between scary and forlorn, angry and sad – is great fun, Rosenblum added.
The 40-minute-long production is suitable for children from age five through adults.
“Beauty and the Beast” plays Feb. 16 through March 25 at The Puppet Co. Playhouse, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. For information and tickets, call 301- 634-5380 or visit www.thepuppetco.org.