For generations of Europeans who stood defenseless before life's brutality, the pen was at least as mighty as the sword. Even as Napoleon bathed western Europe in crimson turmoil, Old World folk tales abounded about stepsisters as sadistic as they were ugly, big bad wolves threatening to chow down on small good girls and plucky young kids turning the tables on horny old cannibals.
Enter Germany's Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm-brothers, librarians and professors who sought to preserve such yarns as object lessons for the ages. Their 19th-century collection of 209 stories includes something called Der Dornröshcen ("The Briar Rose"), the tale of a princess accidentally sent into a 100-year sleep only to awaken at her soulmate's kiss. We know the story as Sleeping Beauty, one of the Grimm pieces that succeeds in spite of its relatively tame cabal.
In fact, restraint is a principal factor in the thoroughly stunning success that is Beauty, a melt-in-your-mouth La Jolla Playhouse world premiere from playwright-director Tina Landau. Landau's adaptation of the Grimm entry is rapt in its own wonderment-her exhaustive research has yielded an unfailingly focused, cadenced dialogue and an ensemble whose sense of itself is as winning as it is rare. This Beauty is insistently disciplined in its development, timely in its entreaty and drop-dead wonderful in its consummation.
Technology has produced some curious treatments of live performance; while the neo-glam movement often provides excellent shading to age-old themes, it can also oversimplify stories unto obfuscation (note Sledgehammer Theatre's current Medea, Queen of Colchester).
No such temptation is evident in Beauty. Riccardo Hernandez's trippy set designs and Rob Milburn's and Michael Bodeen's original music and sound seamlessly blend into the medieval macabre, with its damasks and spirits and witches and fairies and bloodlust and spiders and spells and spinning wheels and stuff (Landau draws a brief but letter-perfect analogy between barbed wire, nails and the pesky briar of yore).
Narrator Constance (Lisa Harrow) is the arid old mediator for James (Jason Danieley), a modern urbanite whose savvy extends no further than his reverence for Gertrude Stein. In describing L.A., Stein once caustically (and correctly) said "there's no "there' there." The hapless James has applied this descriptor to his own life. He sets off on a journey to the past, where he crosses paths with Constance, King Bertrand (Corey Brill), Queen Marguerite (Amy Stewart) and Rose (Kelli O'Hara), the budding young woman whose inadvertent prick of a finger sends her sleepward for 10 centuries.
That leaves plenty of time for Constance to retell Rose's story not from the Grimms' perspective but from her own. And retell it she does, replete in this version with a sober confession on Rose's birthright. Landau's Constance, it turns out, is all too human, susceptible to the myriad flaws that bedevil each of us. In the same spirit, James and Rose struggle to escape the story's foothold on their zest for mortality. They do so with one fateful brush of the lips; now, they're free to revel in the discomfiture and pain that characterize a life well lived.
In modernizing the tale, Landau wisely illustrates the concept of beauty rather than trying to define it. Watch as musician Richard Tibbits and the remaining ensemble members (David Ari, Simone Vicari Moore and Adam Smith) litanize the quest for beauty in earthly terms-soon, they yield the floor to Constance, who declares that the very beauty for which we thirst has sought us all along.
Constance has been around a while, and so has this story in one form or another. Its La Jolla advent assures its continuity for at least the next several weekends, and it's a spectacle of which Landau and the Playhouse can be exceedingly proud. Their "wimpy-wimpy James-James," as he refers to himself, resumes his life through a portal that has transfigured his reality. So will you.
This review is based on the opening performance of Sept. 21. Beauty runs through Oct. 19 at the Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla. $35-$49. 858-550-1010.