Fiasco’s Minimalist ‘Into The Woods’ Enchants at SHN
Review – The Daily Californian
Miyako Singer | March 13, 2017
In Fiasco Theater Company’s production of “Into the Woods,” now at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, the trees are trimmed to their barest elements. In Fiasco Theater Company’s production of “Into the Woods,” now at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, the trees are trimmed to their barest elements.
The Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine classic of fairy tale revisionism is winnowed down to its core. The newly minimal cast reduces a sprawling storybook ensemble to 10 actors, most of them performing multiple roles. Orchestration is provided not by a full pit but by a piano, occasionally accompanied by cast members playing various instruments. Then there are the props, which look like the odds and ends dug up from a theater’s storage closet after an overdue clean — tailor’s dummies, mysterious paintings, funny hats. The look of the show is as charming and off-kilter as the story it tells. “Woods” follows a motley collection of dreamers lifted from Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault tales on their respective journeys into the woods. There’s an indecisive maiden who wishes to go the festival, Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer), a sad young lad who will climb a beanstalk, Jack (Patrick Mulryan), and a hungry little girl on her way to Granny’s, Little Red Ridinghood (Lisa Helmi Johanson, also playing Rapunzel). The original characters in the mix are a childless Baker (Evan Harrington) and his wife (Eleasha Gamble), who are on a quest to find items for the witch (Stephanie Umoh) who cursed their family for messing with her greens. Fiasco has put together an astonishing cast. Every actor is talented in their own right, though Darick Pead and Anthony Chatmon II are particular scene-stealers in their very funny triple roles — Milky White/Florinda/Rapunzel’s Prince and Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince, respectively. Each member fits seamlessly into the onstage community, supporting one another at every turn with added orchestration or taking on small roles, as when a few players flutter pieces of paper to portray Cinderella’s birds. “We’re all making magic together,” said Patrick Mulryan, who plays both Jack and the Steward. The audience is a participant too. “Into the Woods” could easily be weighed down by an extravagant treatment of its fantastical subject matter, or worse, smugly wrapped up in irony, but directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld skillfully avoid both. Instead, this “Woods” is playful, finding magic in the medium of theater itself and inviting the audience to join in the fun. “The audience is like our co-collaborator,” Mulryan explained. “If I’m on stage and I’m pretending a feather duster is a magical hen … you need to meet me halfway.” The production encourages the mood of “kids on a playground,” as Mulryan put it, the feeling of grabbing whatever you have on hand and creating a story on the spot. In the kingdom Fiasco creates, a man wearing a bell can be a beloved cow and a curtain rod can be a gown. The seemingly improvisational swiftness with which scenes and characters shift brings a jolt of joy to “Woods.” Derek McLane’s gorgeous scenic design offers the perfect backdrop for this. The mismatched chandeliers and broken piano parts evoke a crowded antique shop or a Joseph Cornell assemblage piece. The feeling that these odds and ends have been found and lovingly pieced together is reminiscent of childhood discovery. Without realistic props and ornate orchestration, the bulk of “Woods” rests on the acting and singing of these performers for success, and this cast is entirely up to the task. The theatricality also allows for some visually stunning scenes, particularly two moments involving shadow play to create what isn’t there. The collaborative nature of Fiasco’s imagining works perfectly for “Into the Woods.” As the musical’s penultimate song, “No One Is Alone” is made literal on stage. “Even when you’re singing a solo, you know you have this entire group behind you, supporting you,” Mulryan said. In every detail of the staging, the symbiotic, messy spontaneity of what can happen to bakers and boys and hungry little girls in the woods is made manifest. As Veldheer warned newcomers in the audience, don’t leave halfway through the woods. What happens after happily ever after is the crux of the show. In fact, it is life itself.
Into The Woods, Entertainment Weekly Review
Review – Entertainment Weekly
Nicole Sperling | April 8, 2017
Who knew a ladder, a hunting trophy, clever lighting, and a piano on rollers could transform Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairy tale musical Into the Woods into a delightful, imaginative farce that makes you forget completely about its nearly three-hour runtime? It helps that Fiasco Theatre’s touring production, which arrived April 5 at Los Angeles’s Ahmanson Theatre, also boasts a troupe of 10 incredible, adept performers equally good at hitting the high notes and literally banging the drum when the moment calls. (That doesn’t include the hardworking pianist Evan Rees, who fills in as a cow when his moment calls.) This scaled-back production, which abandons an orchestra and elaborate stagecraft for simple props you’d find in the recesses of an old theater, comparatively makes Rob Marshall’s recent 2014 film version feel even more bloated and overwrought than on initial viewing.
Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld directed the piece, with choreography by Lisa Shriver and music supervision by Matt Castle. With all the music coming directly from the stage players, the dizzying speed with which the actors toggle between performing their various roles and playing their various instruments makes you wonder about the complex flowcharts that must have overwhelmed rehearsal — not to mention the brilliant lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, which cleverly turns campground shadow puppets into the Wolf’s Red Riding Hood feast and the female giant’s dramatic second-act downfall.
Much of the credit needs to go to the ensemble itself: Anthony Chatmon II’s casual reminder to the audience at the top of the show to turn off our cell phones belied his dexterous capabilities once the lights were down. He fully embodies the sly, conniving Wolf with nothing more than a stuffed head mounted on a block of wood, before winking his way into the role of Lucinda, one of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, thanks to an imaginative set dressing made up of a simple closet rod with two draperies affixed to resemble two dresses. Chatmon also plays Cinderella’s Prince, filling the iconic “Agony” with just the right mixture of pathos and glee. It helps that his singing partner as both stepsister and prince is Darick Pead, playing Rapunzel’s Prince and donning the absurd garb of Florinda while also leaving the audience in hysterics with his most memorable role: Milky White, the cow and best friend of Jack (Patrick Mulryan). Pead’s take on Milky White’s death scene is an especially hilarious highlight.
As a piece, the very setup of Into the Woods can be problematic — the first half focuses on the main characters fulfilling their wishes while the second caters to the very notion of being careful what you wish for — but Fiasco’s imaginative staging and incredible performances put those issues to rest for the most part. The giddy joy of the first act gives way to some thrilling emotion in the second, with stand-out moments coming from the Cinderella-led (Laurie Veldheer) “No One is Alone” and the Witch’s (Stephanie Umoh) “Last Midnight” farewell.
If you’re living in Los Angeles and wishing for some inventive, joyous theater, run to Into the Woods, if only to see what magic can be found in the most ordinary household props. Just wait until you see the singing birds.
Once Upon A Time, There Was A Fairy Tale Musical For Grown Ups…
Review – Washington Post
Peter Marks | December 11, 2016
A feather duster. A ladder. A curtain rod. Amazing how the most humdrum of household items can be transformed into instruments of enchantment — exactly the way the droll magicians of Fiasco Theater make this happen in their delightfully unfussy take on the fractured fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods.”
Into the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater the little New York-based company brings these ordinary elements and presto! — they’re objects that help transport us into the wounded world of this Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, in which characters puzzle out their places in the land of make-believe as if they were graduate students in philosophy.
The feather duster is a goose that lays golden eggs; the ladder, the tower from which Rapunzel lets down her hair; the curtain rod, a support for the dresses worn by Cinderella’s hardhearted Stepsisters. Fiasco, last represented in these parts by the witty world premiere of its version of Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the Folger Theatre, wants to activate audiences’ imaginative instincts in much the way Sondheim and Lapine compel Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack of beanstalk fame to wander outside the boundaries of their stories to reflect on the riddles of modern life.
“What if he knew/Who you were when you know/That you’re not what he thinks/That he wants?” Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer) sings about the Prince (Anthony Chatmon II) from whom she flees. “Though scary is exciting/Nice is different than good,” concludes Little Red Riding Hood (Lisa Helmi Johanson) after being rescued from the stomach of the Wolf (Chatmon again). “You think of all of the things you’ve seen/And you wish that you could live in between,” warbles Jack (Philippe Arroyo) after escaping the Giants’ lair. “And you’re back again/Only different, than before.”
With a mere 11 actors, all of them doubling as musicians and one of them, Evan Rees, playing a piano that remains for much of the evening at center stage, the company offers as poignant a treatment of the 1987 musical as you’ll ever come across. It turns out that the overburdened exposition of “Into the Woods” — the weaving together of four major plots and several subplots over the course of two hours and 45 minutes — gets some relief when the visual distractions are kept to a minimum. And in cases in which a production can place its focus squarely on the musical’s emotionality, rather than on its penchant for sardonic commentary, the show becomes child’s play in the optimal sense. How much more enjoyable is Fiasco’s approach than was the rather pedestrian path followed by the lumbering, star-filled vehicle that was the 2014 movie adaptation.
Not that every moment of “Into the Woods” is kid-friendly. The violent episodes aside — what happens to the Wolf, the Stepsisters and the lady Giant isn’t very nice — the fairy-tale characters who wander into the woods, in search of adventure or loved ones or the granting of a fondest wish, end up confronting adult, existential crises. (In the Eisenhower, I watched as a few of the littlest theatergoers squirmed.) Still, the resourceful conjuring by directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld infuses so much heart, and richness of imagination, into the piece that this “Into the Woods” offers pleasure at virtually every reading level.
The production’s aesthetic is a match for a musical that says, essentially, that our world doesn’t yield up easy answers for every question; the riddles in which some characters speak, such as the furtive, aptly named Mysterious Man (Fred Rose), seem confoundingly opaque. But so, sometimes, is life. Set designer Derek McLane picks up this idea in the messy-beautiful physical domain he devises. It’s a world that in the mind’s eye might, in fact, be going on inside that piano: The woods are framed by giant strands of piano wire, verdantly illuminated by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind. High above the stage, a cluster of chandeliers suggests the elegance of the Prince’s palace, while the dull sticks of furniture below betoken the humbler dwelling of the dolefully childless Baker (Evan Harrington) and his wife (Eleasha Gamble).
When this production started three years ago at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., and went on to runs in New York and London, the cast was made up largely of Fiasco’s own roster of regular players. For this touring version, the show has been recast, an advantage being that these actors have stronger voices for a musical with a palette of Sondheim songs funny (“Agony”), touching (“No More”), soaring (“Giants in the Sky”) and elegiac (“No One Is Alone”) that come across with exuberance (and acoustic clarity) in the Eisenhower.
You’ll enjoy every one of these performers. Harrington’s Baker, Veldheer’s Cinderella, Gamble’s Baker’s Wife and Chatmon’s Prince and Wolf convey all of the required qualities of affability, charisma, warmth, charm and menace, while Vanessa Reseland’s Witch and Johanson’s Little Red Riding Hood inject the evening with a helpful zest. Arroyo and Bonnie Kramer, as an impressionable Jack and his beleaguered mother, offer up an endearing portrait of a folkloric child and parent at loggerheads. And an extra ring of a cowbell to Darick Pead, who executes a splendid act of anthropomorphism in herding a character by the name of Milky White into the spotlight.
“Children will listen,” or so Sondheim reminds us, in one of the melodic admonitions in a musical filled with them. Fiasco’s sophisticated and accessible style ensures that grown-ups do so, too — even if there’s no guarantee of happily ever after.
A Homespun revival of a Sondheim Favourite
Review – Evening Standard
Henry Hitchings | July 13, 2016
Into the Woods is one of the most frequently revived of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals, and it’s not hard to see why.
Though overlong, it’s accessible and poignant, and its willingness to take children’s stories seriously results in a heady mix of escapist fantasy, violence and brilliant wordplay. When a Disney film version came out in 2014, it combined energy and dazzle with a darkness wholly untypical of that mighty corporation. Here Sondheim’s score and James Lapine’s book get a very different treatment, courtesy of American company Fiasco Theater.
This lean and resourceful interpretation, in which all the members of an 11-strong cast play instruments, feels like a homespun community project.
It’s earnest but often witty, and while the quality of the singing is uneven and the stripped-back approach doesn’t fully realise the intricate textures of Sondheim’s tunes, the subversiveness of the lyrics is palpable.
The characters, mostly familiar from fairy tales, are all on a quest. Cinderella hopes to go to a festival, Little Red Riding Hood wants to feed her grandmother, beanstalk enthusiast Jack would love it if his cow could produce some milk, and a baker and his wife long to have a child.
But as their desires are fulfilled they begin to question whether they’ve been wishing for the right things. Cheating and bickering ensue, and a giant stomps alarmingly into their midst.
Though occasionally too cute for its own good, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld’s production is full of humour and proves eloquent about the need to outgrow self-obsession. We can only combat giants when we’ve learned tolerance and the importance of togetherness. Oh, and the Witch is the most clear-sighted character, insisting that “I’m not nice, I’m just right.” Now doesn’t that sound topical?
Until September 17, Menier Chocolate Factory
Long Wharf’s “Measure” Is No Fiasco
Review New Haven Independent
Donald Brown | December 10, 2015
The Fiasco Theater’s production of Measure for Measure, directed by company members Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld at the Long Wharf Theatre and running until Dec. 20, makes the Bard’s darkest comedy more viewer-friendly. First of all, the characters to keep track of has been shrunk from 21 to a much more manageable 11 (or 12 if you count the unseen Barnardine, a prisoner), and played by a cast of 6. And that means everyone but Andy Grotelueschen as the Duke — who disguises himself for most of the play as a friar — plays two roles.
Much of the fun starts right there.
Long Wharf’s ‘Measure’ Leaves ’em Laughing
Review in Hartford Courant
Christopher Arnott | December 3, 2015
“It’s rare enough that the Long Wharf Theatre would do a
Shakespeare play — in the theater’s 51-year history, it has staged only 11 of them.
It’s rarer still that the Long Wharf would give over its main stage to an existing production by an outside company, something it hasn’t done in at least seven years.
What makes the Fiasco Theatre’s reshaping of “Measure for Measure” so right for the Long Wharf right now?
Topicality, for one thing. “Measure for Measure” abounds with abuses of power, rampant corruption and outrageous lies. The script, which dates back to 1603 or so, is ideal for the run-up to a presidential election. The liner notes in the Long Wharf program list a half dozen real-life present-day politicians who measure up to the scoundrels that populate the play.”
Mating-Season Mood Swings in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’
Review in The New York Times
Ben Brantley | April 30,2015
“For those of you who had been wondering if spring had decided to skip New York this year, there has been a confirmed sighting of that elusive season at Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Fresh sap, tickling breezes, blushing blooms — yep, they’re all in evidence. So is the tendency of emerging specimens of human fauna to seize the day as if it were made exclusively for mating.”
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
Review in Time Out New York
Adam Feldman | April 30,2015
“In Derek McLane’s set for Fiasco Theater’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, crumpled pieces of paper are shaped to suggest a grove of flowers bursting into bloom. That is exactly the spirit of this endearing production. In the show’s unusually thoughtful and well-considered program notes, codirectors Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld observe that the play may seem like “a first draft.” And indeed, Two Gents—one of the Bard’s earliest, briefest and least esteemed works—is usually best appreciated, if it is appreciated at all, as a collection of seedlings for devices (a cross-dressed heroine, a flight to the forest, a misused ring) that would come to fruit in subsequent efforts. But Fiasco’s winsome, swift and immensely appealing account dances lightly over the play’s pitfalls.”
Fiasco Theater troupe brings enchanting ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ to Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Review in Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Laura Croghan | May 1, 2015
“I’m in love with a dog named Crab.
You’ll fall for him, too. Just you wait and see.
His master says Crab is “the sourest-natured dog that lives,” but don’t you believe it.
The hapless canine is a hilarious scene-stealer — and one of Shakespeare’s funniest clowns — when played by the right actor.
That would be Zachary Fine, who slips a shiny black ball over his nose, gets a goofy-puppy look in his eyes and voilà — the audience at “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is laughing again.”
Familiar Forest, Made New
Review in New York Times
Ben Brantley | May 14, 2013
“Into the Woods,” the 1987 reworking of classic fairy tales by James Lapine and Stephen 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.”
In Decadent Vienna, Constancy Is Shown the Doors
Review in New York Times
Ben Brantley | March 2, 2014
“So many doors, each opening on to what God only knows. What do think is behind, say, this one, with the grill? A treat or a trick? A lady or a tiger? Mercy or mortality?
That last coupling of opposites comes from Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” a strange play of hard choices that has been given a most charming new production at the New Victory Theater, in which the scenery consists of little more than six portable doors. That’s right, I said charming. And, yes, I know that’s an adjective not normally found anywhere near “Measure for Measure,” one of the creepiest plays in the cannon.”
Simply Shakespeare, No Tangled Web
Review in New York Times
Ben Brantley | January 17, 2011
“Credibly portraying incredible feats of derring-do; bringing elaborate battle scenes to life in ways in which you can tell who’s on what side and who’s winning; organically blending music into the action and fluidly evoking shifts of time and scene: with a cast of exactly six …”
Six Actors No Longer in Search of a Play
Feature story in New York Times
Alexis Soloski | August 31, 2011
“Fiasco’s success is, like “Cymbeline,” something of a fairy tale. Sitting in a sunlit Times Square rehearsal space where the company was readying the show for its new engagement, Ben Steinfeld, a company member, said: “Our story is preposterous. It’s hard to believe.” Yet it is true.”
Cymbeline Revitalizes Shakespeare’s Much-Mocked Epic
Review in New York Magazine
Scott Brown | January 21, 2011
“In just two and half hours, Fiasco (produced at the New Victory by Theater for a New Audience) reminds us what theater, at its simplest and most powerful, is really for: the alchemical thrill of watching an entire world conjured into being out of sheer wit and will.”