INTO THE WOODS: A Grimm Fantasy Musical at PlayMakers Rep

Lisa Brescia and Carey Cox as The Witch and her daughter Rapunzel. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Lisa Brescia and Carey Cox as The Witch and her daughter Rapunzel, in the PlayMakers Repertory Company’s staging of INTO THE WOODS, the 1987 Sondheim/Lapine musical. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

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.

Jessica Sorgi as Little Red Riding Hood and Gregory DeCandia as the Wolf, in PRC's INTO THE WOODS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Jessica Sorgi as Little Red Riding Hood and Gregory DeCandia as the Wolf, in PRC’s INTO THE WOODS. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Romancing the Firearm: Mike Daisey premieres THE STORY OF THE GUN at PRC2

In his latest one-man show, a rare commissioned work for PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC2 series, monologist Mike Daisey runs his prismatic riffs on the gun in America. The gun: a gun, any gun, all guns, guns in particular and in general; gun as totem, power object, killing machine and manly appendage. He berates us and himself for being idiotic enough to attempt to converse on the subject (any conversation there may be comes after Daisey holds forth alone for 90 minutes); he plies us with facts, anecdotes and questionable syntax. And one perfect, amazing story, nestled within his wordy web. When he tells this story, his personal story of first handling guns, his voice loses its shrill haranguing note and become velvety and engrossing.

Joe Haj, PRC’s producing artistic director, commissioned The Story of the Gun from Daisey after the Newtown, CT, massacre. Its premiere performances began Jan. 8 in the Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, and continue through Jan. 12. In the work, Daisey never mentions Newtown, nor the name of any place where something particularly terrible to do with guns has occurred—times when surely now, now, we as a nation would rise up and stop the madness. Instead, he unravels some of the knotted reasons why we never do, or at least ascribes some particular psychologies to Americans. I found it difficult to apply some of these across the board in a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society made up of women as well as men, but his larger point holds.

We love guns. Not every single one of us, but quite a lot of us. We love their power, and we like the ways guns have made us strong in our own fantasies, histories and myths, even as we rage and weep over murders, massacres, rampages with automatic weapons. I was crying at breakfast over Gabrielle Giffords, but I’d be happy anytime to tell you about when my great-grandmother ran off the bad guys with a baby on one hip and a shotgun on the other. Or I could detail a few stories from the life of my girlhood heroine Annie Oakley, who found food, fortune and fame as a sharpshooter.

Daisey didn’t bring up any new ideas—certainly no “solutions”—but he did make a listener hypersensitive to the omnipresence of guns and images of guns in our culture. Just before hearing him, I’d been finishing Sena Jeter Naslund’s The Fountain of St. James Court, in which the climatic scene involves a 70 year old woman shooting at the feet of a threatening man with a pistol given her by a 90-something woman as a helpful tool for living alone. The next night I watched the first episode of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, the heroine of which is a smart sexy glamorous 1920s modern woman. Her aging aunt asks her why she thinks she can just freely go out at night by herself, and she replies: “Because I carry a gun,” whipping a gold-plated revolver out of her garter.

If you need to ascribe a value to Daisey’s monologue (something he brings up early on), it could be that when he says we are all in this together, you can see yourself in the imaginary mirror behind him, behind the stalwart table and microphone that separate the storyteller from the listener. We are all in this story together. That’s a high value piece of knowledge. If we didn’t need to acquire it again and again, theatrical art might never have flourished among humans.

THE STORY OF THE GUN continues at PRC2 throughSun. Jan. 12. Shows at 7:30, with an additional 2:00 Sunday show. Talk back with Daisey after each performance. http://www.playmakersrep.org

Changing, changing: METAMORPHOSES at PlayMakers, in repertory with THE TEMPEST

Stories of metamorphosis abound in every culture; our changing bodies and changing desires have caused them to arise in the human mind since the beginning. Anyone raised in Western literary culture will have been exposed since childhood to the stories of strange and wondrous changes collected by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-18 AD) from all the Greek and Roman sources available to him and collated into 15 books of poetically flowing story, Metamorphoses. The stories explain things, like the existence of spiders; or lay out the consequences of behaviors like greed, incest, hubris or self-absorption; they offer consolations against the griefs of life. Ovid has been a source for writers as diverse as Shakespeare and the forgotten scribes of children’s early readers.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children's compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Arachne could weave even more beautifully than Athena, shown here disguised as a crone, preparing to turn Arachne into the first spider for that insolence. From the 1928 children’s compendium, Book Trails. The story appears in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

More recently, the playwright, director and MacArthur Fellowship winner Mary Zimmerman raided Ovid’s trove for her 1998 play, Metamorphoses. She chose just a few of his stories to enliven onstage, and augmented them with related material from other sources (poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke; the story of Eros and Psyche, which does not come down via Ovid), creating a theatrical experience that mimics the carefully crafted flow of Ovid’s work, in which each story has some connection to those on either side of it.

In Zimmerman’s work, water, that great signifier of formal fluidity and agent of change, is a central element, and water there is—a great pool taking up much of the stage–at UNC’s Paul Green Theatre, where PlayMakers Repertory Company has mounted Metamorphoses. Co-directed by PlayMakers’ Joseph Haj and visiting master artist Dominique Serrand, Metamorphoses is playing in rotating rep with The Tempest through Dec. 8.

The ensemble in PRC's METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The ensemble in PRC’s METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PRC has production capabilities far outstripping all other theaters in the area, capabilities created and supported by the company’s role in the teaching programs of the Department of Dramatic Art. Every production at PlayMakers is a learning experience for both acting and theatre-tech students, and they supply a huge labor force while learning. For a show involving water on stage, with actors continually getting in and out of it, backstage work increases exponentially; for two alternating shows in which actors and their clothes must be dried before their next entrance, a backstage cast of thousands and many flow charts (pardon the expression) are required.

Julia Gibson as the psychologist, Gregory DeCandia as Apollo, and Nathaniel P. Claridad as Phaeton. Ari Picker on guitar. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Ari Picker, guitar; Julia Gibson,  Gregory DeCandia, and Nathaniel P. Claridad, during Phaeton’s tale.  Photo: Michal Daniel/ PRC.

Carey Cox in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Carey Cox as Eurydice in the rain, with Nilan Johnson and Nathaniel P. Claridad, in METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

But one does not think about that while the stories unfurl and float away through the dark sea of mythic consciousness. One may think about time, or timelessness, or how much we are the same as the men and women who lived thousands of years ago and generated these mythic tales. One may be pierced or pinched by them to tears, so vivid are the stories and so exact their parallels to personal experiences. Just in case someone might have missed their relevance to contemporary issues, Zimmerman inserted a note-taking, jargon-speaking psychologist (well-played by Julia Gibson) into the story of Phaeton (Nathaniel P. Claridad) crashing and burning after taking his father (Gregory DeCandia) Apollo’s sun chariot for a disastrous spin. The script makes this a funny story, but most of them are not–though several do have happy conclusions. There’s not anything you can do to alleviate the pain of Orpheus, who just can’t not look back. But there is a kind of joy in the metamorphosis into seabirds of the grieving widow and her drowned husband, and celebration when Midas after much travail loses his golden touch and regains his live daughter. The great stories to live by are saved for the end, and by the end on opening night, the cast, most of whom are first and second year MFA students, had lost their initial stiffness and gotten into the rhythm (many of these actors also play in The Tempest which opened the night before, so some transitional moments can be forgiven). Both the story of Philemon and Baucis, an old, poor, couple who give hospitality to strangers, and thereby entertain the gods unaware; and the story of Eros and Psyche divided and reunited, are beautifully played. It’s wonderful to see these ancient myths brought to new life in young bodies, and to be reminded of  how, always changing, we never change.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Brandon Garegnani and Arielle Yoder as Eros and Psyche in the PRC production of METAMORPHOSES. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

As satisfying as Metamorphoses is, the companion production of The Tempest is even more fulfilling. My review was published Nov. 8, 2013, on Classical Voice of North Carolina, with the title “A Lucid Storm: The Tempest at PlayMakers.”

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in PRC's new production of THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Julie Fishell as Prospero and Maren Searle as Ariel in THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest is one of his most delightful plays, and not only for its many pleasant aspects. A story’s told from start to finish, and in it wrongs are righted, men better themselves, and a love match is made. Spirits and monsters can be seen and heard. There are ridiculous pratfalls and tender revelations. There’s music, and language that could be called the same. But no matter what interpretation du jour is laid upon the script, the play’s meditation on the magical power of words and stories to create and shape life is what makes it so engaging each time one sees it, and so worthy of seeing again and again.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

The young lovers Miranda and Ferdiand, played by Caroline Strange and Brandon Garegnani. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

PlayMakers Repertory Company has just opened a refined and visually-lovely new….READ THE REST ON CVNC HERE.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell's Caliban and John Allore's Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC's THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

Wonderfully comic Julia Wilson as Stephano, with Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s Caliban and John Allore’s Trinculo under the blanket, in PRC’s THE TEMPEST. Photo: Michal Daniel for PRC.

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