Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita. –Dante.
(In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. –Durling translation.)
I think kids now get their lessons in the darker, less manageable aspects of life’s passions and exigencies from other sources, but one of my literary primers was the set of Grimm and Anderson tales that I received long before I could read it for myself. I pored over those baffling stories again and again with fascination and horror, many years before learning about metaphors or Dante or Jungian archetypes. The idea of archetypes–universally shared symbols and stories–was having a heyday in the 198os, and, like the magic beanstalk, up sprang Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical of and about a certain set of archetypal stories. A mash-up before mash-up was cool, Into The Woods, utilizes well-known characters from several fairy tales, but mixes together their stories, then turns them inside out and upside down–the better to eat you with, my dear.
The PlayMakers Repertory Company revival of Into The Woods is, in a word, enchanting.
The enchantments in fairy tales can all be broken, but the spell of PRC’s Into The Woods, may be immutable. Directed by Joseph Haj, it is a fine piece of work by all involved. I can’t find a damn thing in November 8’s opening performance to quibble about, except for the fact we don’t get to actually see the giant whose voice we hear (Kathryn Hunter-Williams). The storyline is super-smart without being full of itself. Its humor makes most of its hard truths go down like candy (although those two-timing princes will always break a girl’s heart). The band (led by Jay Wright; music supervision by Mark Hartman), perched high above the set’s treetops, does a brisk job with Sondheim’s darkly shaded tunes, without escalating the volume too high. Sondheim’s catchy, incisive lyrics often amaze with their piled-up rhymes, and the cast handles them well, sometimes beautifully. The actors wear headset microphones, but the sound system and its operators were all working correctly on opening day, and every word was clearly audible. Bill Brewer’s brilliant costuming is a delight throughout, and on the bodies of lesser actors, could easily have been the main attraction. Marion Williams set, with its dark wood enclosed by towering, skewed, bookcases and thousands of books, literally visualizes the play’s kernel: life is bounded by our stories.
The cast is large and, uniformly, up to the challenges of multiple stories intersecting more or less simultaneously. When everyone sings his or her own story at the same time, you may think you’ve strayed into a Robert Altman film. But it’s a lovely device, the strands of words braiding together like Rapunzel’s hair, long and strong enough to pull us up into the tower of song. Guest artists Lisa Brescia and Garrett Long are both superb, as The Witch and The Baker’s Wife, respectively, and PRC company member Julia Gibson stands out as Jack’s Mother. Caroline Strange gives Cinderella a gallant heart and quite a backbone, while fellow MFA candidate Gregory DeCandia demonstrated conclusively that the big bad Wolf and Prince Charming share one skin.
This doubling echoes that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (see my CVNC review), which PRC is performing in rotation with Into The Woods. You can double up and gorge on both the plays on Nov. 22 and Dec. 6, or you can see them on adjacent days through Dec. 7. It’s really a wonderful combination.
Some believe that humans are storytellers; others believe that the stories tell us. Whichever, there’s definitely a symbiotic relationship going–each requires the other, just like the cozy library needs the dark woods for its material, and the selva oscura requires the library to reveal its meanings.