- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2001

Le Neon Theatre goes back to the future in its double bill of "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Velveteen Gentleman" by mining older material for two innovative productions.

For anyone raised on the animated Disney version of "Sleeping Beauty" — with its high jinks and romance and trademark villainy — this original adaptation of the tale by French writer Charles Perrault offers a look at the story told in a different time and culture.

The tale of La Belle (Sleeping Beauty), the King and Queen's long-awaited baby who is cursed by an angry fairy not invited to the christening, is familiar.

But here the story doesn't end happily with La Belle and the Prince marrying after he awakens her with a kiss. Instead, she and her children go to live with the prince's mother when he goes off to war.

His mother is the Ogress — a woman who eats children and commands her servant to kill her grandchildren for her breakfast and lunch, and who wants to throw La Belle in a pit of snakes. As the prince returns, the Ogress falls into the pit herself.

Le Neon uses masks, puppets and cutouts for the characters, with a trio of actors (Madeline Muravchik, Barbara Papendorp and Gae Schmitt) providing the movements and voices.

Although the lack of flesh-and-blood actors could result in a static production, "Sleeping Beauty" has a surprising energy.

The play, directed by Didier Rousselet and delivered in English and French, isn't difficult to understand. The music, by Hesperus (Tina Chancey and Scott Reiss), overcomes any language barrier by capturing the mood of the play and conveying the happiness of the princess's birth, the confidence of the Prince as he clop-clops in on his horse and the menace of the Ogress waiting to feast on her grandchildren.

Children likely will enjoy the theatricality of "Sleeping Beauty," but the short scenes of "The Velveteen Gentleman" might try their patience. The production also might try the patience of some adults because of its disjointedness. From the start, though, the actors happily acknowledge that the lack of structure is part of the show.

"The Velveteen Gentleman" is based on the music and ideas of French composer Erik Satie, whose work included ballet, music and theater.

Satie (Andy White) and his friends (played Patricia Buignet, Kim Curtis, Tel Monks, Dominique Montet and Ellie Nicoll) join in a series of sketches set to the composer's music (with piano played by Lisa Robinson).

Some of the sketches range from broad physical comedy — an entire series called "Sports and Diversions" includes a couple on a seesaw and the group out yachting — to nonsensical discussions, such as a debate on the merits of ham vs. music.

The production also includes slides of artwork by Satie himself and some of his contemporaries. The parts of the play delivered in French are accompanied by subtitles on the slide, although the lighting makes examining or appreciating the art really difficult.

According to the program notes, the show is aiming for a feeling of constant flux, with some of the scenes shorter than a minute and most no longer than three minutes. Directors Dominique Montet and Andrew White succeed, perhaps a little too well, in keeping the audience distracted.

Still, Le Neon's double bill offers up whimsical and enlivening productions that should entertain adults and children.

{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "Theatre and French Music: A Double Bill"WHERE: Le Neon Theatre at the Rosslyn Spectrum, 161 N. Kent St., RosslynWHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 4TICKETS: $10 to $19PHONE: 703/243-2744 or www.leneon.org

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