Classic stories do not have to beat you over the head with their message, says Mike Leach, chief puppeteer and executive of Puppetworks, a Brooklyn-based production company putting on a show in Jersey City. In classic stories you get the point, as well as being entertained, he says.
In an age when children’s stories center on topics like recycling and anti-bullying, tales like “Beauty and the Beast” stand out, delivering overwhelmingly powerful messages against bullying, but also about the benefits of love and sacrifice.
Jersey City Theater Center is kicking off its 2016 season with this timeless tale, the fourth in a series put on by Leach and Puppetworks.
The show will be presented every Sunday at 1 p.m. until May 29 at the Merseles Studios, 339 Newark Ave. in Jersey City.
JCTC has been delivering classic tales to local audiences for more than two years, and the current tale takes the audience through a host of emotions and trials that are still relevant today.
“This is live theater. But I call it theater one third the size,” Leach, who along with Jeremy Kerr, manipulates the more than a dozen marionettes on the stage.
“In today’s world, it’s so important for children to develop their imaginations and these classic fairytales encourage kids to dream.” – Olga Levina
The character Troll is the villain in this classic tale, and fully embodies ill will as he intimidates all the other characters he comes into contact with. Part of the joy of watching this performance is to see Troll get his just rewards.
A tale frequently told
While the story has been told a number of times, including in a 1946 landmark French film by Jean Cocteau, by Walt Disney, on Broadway, and in other venues, the Puppetworks version is adapted from “La Belle et la Bete,” the earliest print version of this story, written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740.
The show also features a classical music score by French composer Jules Massenet, hand-craved wooden marionettes, a thunderstorm, an enchanted forest complete with animated vines, a talking snail, and a transformation of the beast back into the prince.
This is a dream-like story of a young woman who saves her father’s life by agreeing to live with The Beast. Yet the Beast turns out not to be the monster he seems on the surface, but a good-hearted prince suffering under an evil spell.
As the Beast, Kerr says he interacts with the marionettes as if they are human actors, creating such a reality for the audience that they seem confused when they see him later.
“They ask me why I look so small,” he says.
He is not the giant he seemed while on the stage, Leach says.
“This is because theater creates a reality that gets to the audience to believe what they see,” Leach said.
“In today’s world, it’s so important for children to develop their imaginations and these classic fairytales encourage kids to dream,” said Olga Levina, artistic direction of JCTV.
The show runs about 45 minutes. There is an introduction in which Leech talks about theater traditions, especially about etiquette.
“It is all right to laugh or clap, it is not all right to text or use your cell phone during performances,” Leach said.
Leach is a hometown boy
Leach, who grew up in Jersey City Heights and worked a variety of odd jobs in Secaucus and North Bergen, eventually became the chief puppeteer and executive director of Brooklyn-based Puppetworks – and thanks to Jersey City Theater Center, he has brought the show back to the city where he grew up.
Leach has a fierce dedication to maintaining many of the traditions of the craft.
The character voices are pre-recorded. This allows the puppet masters to pay close attention to performance, and by using classic marionettes, he and another puppet master can duplicate movement and emotion.
Although each marionette – from the most complicated character to objects – has a handle attached, puppet masters will do nearly anything with the strings to get the most realistic performance.
He said marionettes have a remarkable range of moment that allows the performance to seem very real. But he refuses to hide the strings. He wants the audience to know they’re seeing a show and to somehow suspend belief.
“I want the people in the audience to imagine this together,” he said.
His puppet company largely relies on classic fairy tales for its material. Most of them have become staples and are still relevant and socially acceptable.
Advance sales tickets cost $9 for kids, $10 for adults, or $11 and $12.50 at the door. Tickets for groups of 20 or more are $9 each. For online tickets or more information got to jctcenter.org.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.