With The Beast’s Library, Sad Ibsen Theatre presents a feminist/Marxist retelling of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, asking the question: what if Belle just stayed in the library the whole time and got really into philosophy?
As you might guess, this show presents a rather irreverent take on the 1991 film (there’s no mention of the remake in the show or promotional materials, and isn’t that really for the best?) and while you might have a little trouble following this show if you haven’t seen the movie, the focus is much more on the philosophy.
In this version the library includes such diverse (and recent) authors as Shaw, Salinger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Heidegger, Thompson, Žižek, and Belle’s favourite, Nietzsche (I’d be moody too if I were the Beast’s prisoner, to be honest). Diehard Disney fans might be sobbing at this point, but there are moments when Belle’s enlightenment of the servants works beautifully: the scene where Belle introduces Mrs. Potts to critical gender theory (allowing her to reclaim her womanhood despite being trapped in the body of a teapot) is the best example of the mash-up between nostalgia and social critique, partly due to the timeliness of gender identity theory and also due to performer Mary Sword’s delightfully stone-faced characterization as the initially suspicious servant/slave (the movie never made it clear whether the Beast pays them, but this show sure does).
There are some issues though, partly due to the script trying to keep to the plot of the Disney film even though the alterations to the story no longer organically build to the “angry mob” climax, as well as the impact of those alterations to Belle’s character. Kyle Cameron’s obnoxious bravado as Gaston is perfect for the role, but if Belle doesn’t return to the village and prove the Beast is real with the magic mirror, then why would Gaston have any reason to believe her father (whom the villagers already think is crazy) and go out to ‘rescue’ her?
Gaston and the Beast do get to amusingly bond over their frustrations with Belle’s decidedly non-domestic life goals, but tonally it’s a bit uneven to present archaic sexism for laughs in the same show where Mrs. Potts learns that she doesn’t need a vulva to call herself a woman. Belle’s character is pretty selfless in the Disney film, and this quality is ramped up here although it comes at the expense of her personality: almost all of her lines are her either reading published material verbatim or explaining concepts such as Sartre’s facticity. Even though it doesn’t make much sense plot-wise for Gaston to appear at all in this show (this show starts with the Beast giving the library to Belle), his inclusion does allow Belle to have a conversation with someone with whom she has a personal history, allowing her some much-needed character development.
Ultimately this show makes a compelling point about the enchantress’s curse as a literal manifestation of the Beast seeing his staff as objects (at least at first, he seemed pretty happy at the end of the movie to see them all human again). This speaks more to a critical re-evaluation of the underlying principles behind Disney princess movies though, and less to do with a burlesque take on a beloved family film (which seems to be a goal here as well, given the amusingly terrible costumes for Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and Chip, and the library being represented through a pile of milk crates stuffed with binders and textbooks). I’m sure that there is a way to marry serious theoretical critique and an irreverent approach to the source material in a way that is both amusing and informative: The Beast’s Library is on its way there, but its current iteration has trouble with the balance.
The Beast’s Library
A Sad Ibsen Theatre production
Written by Ryan Borochovitz
Direction and Production Design by Caitlin Hart and Letycia Henriques
Stage Management and Production by Caitlin Hart
Assistant Stage Manager: Aaron Cooze
Graphic Design by Amal Azman
Starring (in alphabetical order): Gabrielle Banville, Kyle Cameron, Rebecca Moss, Jake Nevins, Sheldon Paul, Mary Sword, and Seth Thomson
In Arts Court Library/Courtroom (BYOV D)