'Into the Woods,' at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton
by Ben Brantley
May 14, 2013
PRINCETON, N.J. — Sometimes you can’t perceive the true beauty of something until you’ve seen it naked. This observation probably doesn’t apply to most human beings, especially those over 25. But it certainly holds true for a certain venerated, usually overdressed musical that has been kicking around for a quarter-century.
“Into the Woods,” the 1987 reworking of classic fairy tales by James Lapine andStephen Sondheim, is now appearing in the unblushing altogether at the McCarter Theater on the campus of Princeton University. And though this show has usually inspired warm but mixed feelings in me whenever I’ve encountered it, this time I fell head over heels.
As reconceived by Fiasco Theater, a young troupe that specializes in undressing classics, “Into the Woods” proves that it has better bones, a fresher bloom and a more naturally curvaceous symmetry than you might have suspected. The show’s excesses of whimsy and postmodern preciousness that annoyed me in the past scarcely seem to exist in this version. And for the first time — and “Woods” and I go way back — it had me in floods of tears.
Never mind that this production doesn’t feature anything like the usual highly polished, highly trained vocalists and orchestra customary for the rendering of Sondheim. Onstage you’ll find one upright piano (played by Matt Castle) and a few other instruments (a cello, a guitar, some woodwinds) scattered about for cast members to pick up from time to time. And some of the performers, to be blunt, can barely carry a tune.
But they can carry meaning, and the sense that every song in this show is an expression of both individual character and universal hopes and fears and confusions. In other words, all the people onstage are there to tell us stories that they utterly believe in, no matter how improbable they seem. And their care and concern for their stories makes us pay attention to this “Woods” as we perhaps never have before.
For a work that features a song called “Children Will Listen” as its anthem, “Into the Woods” doesn’t have the greatest track record for making its audiences listen to what it has to say. A notoriously overblown production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park last summer, staged by the British director Timothy Sheader, envisioned the play’s classic storybook characters as living dolls and action figures from a contemporary child’s toy chest, and had the warmth and intimacy of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
What this latest production demonstrates so beautifully is that while “Woods” may have its moments of ostentatious archness and wordplay (its lyrics are by Mr. Sondheim, after all), it is in its way as sincere, compassionate and brooding as another Sondheim-Lapine collaboration, the anatomy of irrational love called “Passion.” That “Woods” happens to be more fun and funnier than “Passion” is just an extra bonus for hedonists.
The Fiasco team is working here from an approach similar to that of its thrilling “Cymbeline” of two years ago, which delivered every byzantine twist and turn of that convoluted Shakespeare romance using little more than six performers, a trunk and a bedsheet. For “Woods” — which is directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld but feels like a fully democratic team effort — there’s a cast of 10 and a bit more by way of props and scenery, including a handsome conceptual set (made of outsize piano parts) from the Broadway set designer Derek McLane. (Whitney Locher, who did the homespun costumes, and Tim Cryan, the delicate lighting designer, have worked with Fiasco before.)
But true to form, the Fiasco team continues to keep things simple, the better to bring out the material’s complexity. Simplicity does not preclude ingenuity. On the contrary, the company members are forever challenging themselves to devise means of portraying the extraordinary through ordinary, dust-gathering items you might find in the corners of your garage or attic: a dressmaker’s dummy, knitted afghans, a stepladder, a pair of stick horses, a taxidermy wolf’s head and a rod festooned with discarded chintz curtains.
For Fiasco, you see, the necessity of telling a story, which would appear be what these talented artists live for, is an especially fecund mother of invention. This makes the company an ideal interpreter of “Into the Woods,” which is all about the value and consequences of storytelling. As originally conceived by Mr. Lapine and Mr. Sondheim, “Woods” was a post-Freud, post-Bruno Bettelheim reimagining of the fairy tales parents have been delivering to children for centuries.
Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack (of beanstalk fame) and Little Red Riding Hood and her Wolf are treated as contemporary types, working their way through an enchanted forest to a state of grown-up disenchantment, while feeling the oppositional tugs of homebound comfort and on-the-road adventures. The relationship between the central characters of the Baker and his Wife is a classic Sondheim portrait of marital restlessness.
But the show has also always been about how the lessons of fairy tales we hear as children reverberate with new echoes as we get older. And how those ostensibly cozy tales offer ruthless road maps for what lies ahead in life.
The Fiasco cast members don’t keep an intellectual distance from the characters they play. But as they climb ladders, don hand-knit wigs (wait’ll you see what Rapunzel’s famous hair looks like) and turn stray sheets of music into magical birds, they take on the aspects of yarn-spinners who find that the fictions they are relating have become an all-consuming reality.
So while all the homemade stage magic used to portray incredible events, including one harrowing death by giant, is truly enchanting, its greater purpose is to prepare for those moments when individual characters come forward to explain what they have and haven’t learned from these experiences. And as rendered by the Baker and his Wife (Mr. Steinfeld and Jessie Austrian), Cinderella (Claire Karpen), Little Red Riding Hood (Emily Young) and a maternally warped witch (Jennifer Mudge), these songs of reckoning come across as some of the most poignant declarations of ambivalence Mr. Sondheim ever wrote.
When Jack (Patrick Mulryan) steps down from his beanstalk to tell his fellow villagers what he has witnessed — “giants in the sky” — and how it has somehow changed him forever, his song throbs with an urgency, fear and astonishment that captures the spirit of a show that knows how beautiful and ugly, how ordinary and strange, the world always is. At least for people who look and listen, as this production so affectingly compels us to do.
Into the Woods
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by James Lapine; originally directed on Broadway by Mr. Lapine; reimagined by Fiasco Theater; directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld; music director, Matt Castle; choreography by Lisa Shriver; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Whitney Locher; lighting by Tim Cryan; sound by Darron L West; vocal coach, Kathryn Armour; associate producer, Adam Immerwahr; associate director, Michael Perlman; production stage manager, Cheryl Mintz; producing director, Mara Isaacs; director of production, David York. Presented by McCarter Theater Center, Emily Mann, artistic director; Timothy J. Shields, managing director. At the McCarter Theater Center, Princeton, N.J.; (609) 258-2787; mccarter.org. Through June 2. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.
WITH: Jessie Austrian (Baker’s Wife), Noah Brody (Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince), Matt Castle (Pianist), Paul L. Coffey (Mysterious Man), Andy Grotelueschen (Milky White/Florinda/Rapunzel’s Prince), Liz Hayes (Cinderella’s Stepmother/Jack’s Mother), Claire Karpen (Cinderella/Granny), Jennifer Mudge (Witch), Patrick Mulryan (Jack/Steward), Ben Steinfeld (Baker) and Emily Young (Little Red Riding Hood/Rapunzel).