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.


Have I mentioned lately how lucky we are in the Triangle to have a very good regional  professional theater at our public university in Chapel Hill? Currently, as it regularly does, PlayMakers Repertory Company is presenting a recent play in wide production around the country, which allows theater-goers here to share in a kind of dispersed national intellectual conversation. Through October 5, we are talking about Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, and which provides a fabulous showcase for some of the PlayMakers company’s most comic talents, and for a flashy turn from the guest artist.

L to R: ARIELLE YODER as Nina, JULIE FISHELL as Masha, CHRISTIAN DALY as Spike (standing), JEFFEY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia (in background). Photo: Jon Gardiner.

L to R: ARIELLE YODER as Nina, JULIE FISHELL as Masha, CHRISTIAN DALY as Spike (standing), JEFFEY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia (in background) at PlayMakers Rep through October 5, 2014. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

VSMS is directed here by Libby Appel (artistic director emerita of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), who directed an exquisite version of The Glass Menagerie for PRC a few years ago. She brings the same deft guidance to Durang’s play, ensuring that the delicate aspects of the characters are not lost in the rowdy roar of the broader comedy. Appel is undoubtedly aided in her approach by her deep knowledge of the works of Anton Chekhov: she has recently completed new translations of five Chekhov plays. The more Chekhov one knows, the more references one will catch and enjoy and correlate inVSMS, but it is not essential to know any.

Two siblings, Vanya (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and Sonia (Julia Gibson), live in the house they grew up in, the house in which they devoted the prime of their lives to caring for their infirm, demented parents. The parents are now dead, and Vanya and Sonia are marooned with their disappointments and old grievances, their tedium interrupted only by Cassandra, their semi-psychic housekeeper (Kathryn Hunter-Williams). Their successful–but now losing the battle against aging–actress sister Masha (Julie Fishell), who pays the bills, blows in with her boy-toy (Christian Daly). He sets everyone on their ears with his bold sexuality. And then there’s the ingenue next door, Nina (Arielle Yoder). Oh yes, Masha announces her plan to sell the house, and her other plan–to take everyone to a costume party. She’s brought their costumes: her brother and sister are to be two of the dwarves to Masha’s Snow White. One revolts; one doesn’t.

Under Appel’s direction and with this tight ensemble the play achieves a dynamic balance between the outsized comic carrying on and the right-sized human sibling interactions, with the two catalytic outsiders to inject additional energy. Christian Daly, with his large-planed face and hyper-physique, is very amusing as the ridiculous would-be actor Spike, and his presence in the story allows for even more theatrical references to bolster all the Chekhovian ones. He makes you want to wash your hands, but lovely Arielle Yoder makes you feel like you have just washed your hands. Her character Nina may be star-struck and stage-struck, but she is an actual ingenue, and her presence is a balm to the older people.

The squabbles, alliances, attacks and unexpected revelations of the three siblings always ring true, and form the more memorable aspect of the show. Julie Fishell is a marvel to behold as the fading movie star Masha: commanding, neurotic, comic, tragic–and ultimately, released from her fears, at least for a minute. Her timing, as ever, is impeccable.

KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Cassandra and JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

KATHRYN HUNTER-WILLIAMS as Cassandra and JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya.             Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Comic honors go to Kathryn Hunter-Williams for her portrayal of the nutty housekeeper Cassandra, who goes about in floating clothes, spouting warnings and prophecies. The scene with the voodoo doll is purely hilarious. All fans of Hunter-Williams will want to see her in this unusual role.

But Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Vanya and Julia Gibson as Sonia, although they had the quieter roles, made the heart beat in the play. I’ve seen Cornell play many, varied, characters, but I had never seen him inhabit a role more fully than he did Vanya on opening night. It was a beautiful performance, robust but nuanced emotionally. He and Gibson, who has shown amazing range in the short time she’s been with PRC, interacted with a testy ordinariness that was both amusing and endearing.

Gibson rather steals the show with Sonia’s transformation from dumpy whiner (“I have no life!” “I am a wild turkey!”) to a voluptuous woman who can take action. Her appearance in a blue beaded evening gown, speaking like Maggie Smith, brought the house down, but the later scene, when Sonia takes a phone call from a man she’d met at the costume party, is far more affecting. Gibson’s face expresses a trajectory of emotions leading to a tentative happiness, a surprised contentment. And in the final scene, the three siblings nestle together, sharing those emotions. Lovely.


JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

JEFFREY BLAIR CORNELL as Vanya and JULIA GIBSON as Sonia. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

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