Beauty and the Beast, starring Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser, reviewed by Stephanie Nolasco.
A tale as old as time? Sorry Disney, but the best fairytale for grown-ups ever is being shared nearly every night until March 30th on New York City’s Lower East Side. On the gritty streets of downtown Manhattan is the seemingly petite Abrons Arts Center, which transforms into a lush jewel box of a majestic castle, overflowing with blooming red roses; a grand Garden of Eden for two seemingly unlikely characters to meet, fall head over heels, and explore a variety of impressive sexual positions, leaving curious viewers hot and bothered.
Yes, everyone is familiar with Beauty and the Beast, or that animated flick from the ’90s where a bookworm learns to love a monster who magically transforms into a hunky prince. But this rendition is a saucier, more titillating offering with a burlesque twist. The beloved characters are played by real-life husband and wife duo Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz, also known as reigning Coney Island sideshow royalty. And what happens when a blonde bombshell from Detroit, or “the murder capital of the world”, and a charming Brit who was born with “small and perfectly deformed arms” get together? Plenty of romance, sex, and a charming hit on stage.
Forget the singing forks and pots from your childhood. These two performance artists use the classic fable to not only make it their own, but also weave in the real-life story of how two “beautiful beasts” got together and made magic happen, on and offstage. Throughout the retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Fraser or Muz would suddenly step out of character and recite a monologue, vividly describing how they first met and what has kept their relationship intact after so many years. One moment you’ll hear about their first encounter backstage at a Brooklyn sideshow, the next how Muz would chase down Fraser’s yellow taxi for one last kiss whenever he had to return back to England. While these sprinklings of personal memories could easily distract audiences from the fairy tale itself, it engages you more because once you encounter them you can help but want to learn everything there is to know about their relationship – an oddly normal one beyond their prominent roles within the thriving neo-burlesque scene. It’s like secretly reading a chapter from one of their diaries, minus the guilt. And the dual story is told so smoothly, without error, that you can’t help but appreciate being part of their world for a brief moment.
When it does come to the fairytale retelling, the outcome is a beautifully majestic one. Collaborating with renowned director Phelim McDermott, Fraser and Muz unveil a wonderfully imaginative story involving believable puppetry and shadow play. Puppeteers Jess Mabel Jones and Jonny Dixon deliver the enchantment, transforming tissue paper into the living animals of the strange forest, including bouncing bunnies in heat. Take that, Snow White. Jones and Dixon even use their own arms to fill in for Fraser during scenes where he becomes more demanding prince than timid creature. And let’s not forget the rousing feast of fruit at the dinner table scene where Muz and Fraser reveal their talents involving a ripe melon and a banana. Let’s just say it’s enough to make Caligula blush.
But there’s more to this story than falling in love (and lust). The couple expertly confronts head-on what it really means to be a ‘freak’ – and how certain taboos that may frighten people at first sight can actually bring out the beauty (no pun intended) of who they truly are. And there’s no made up animation for that tale. Fraser has phocomelia, a condition which, in his case, was caused by in-utero exposure to the drug Thalidomide, causing his arms to appear flipper-like or ‘seal limbed’. He has no thumbs, but according to one of Muz’s monologues within the show, he easily woos when teaching her how to do a lethal ‘rear naked chokehold’ upon their first meeting in 2006 on Brooklyn’s Coney Island. And yet, by the time he seduces viewers with a very sensual and public bathing scene, you’ll be more focused on the water dripping down his lean physique, not his lack of limbs. As for Muz, she’s no average pinup strutting in pasties. While she proudly strips her way to your heart and hormones, the former Miss Exotic World prefers being a mistress of illusion, which one can get a sneak preview of in her horror movie routine known as ‘The Hand’ where naughty Thing pokes and spanks its way out of her costume. It’s not the classic burlesque routine one may instantly think of involving rhinestones and lots of entrancing hip swivelling, but it’s delightfully shocking and downright hot.
The theatre may be pricey uptown, but downtown is where sinful (and affordable) fun lies for those looking to heat up their evenings with a sizzling new show. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart and children should absolutely be left at home with the babysitter, but Beauty and the Beast has the power to make crowds cheer from beginning to end. You’ll root for this proudly naked twosome and even believe that a happily ever after is possible for anyone – yes, even you.
Beauty and the Beast is playing until March 30th, 2014 at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street NY, NY 10002. www.abronsartscenter.org