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.

Turn Out for Turn About: BROADWAY TWISTED at Local 506, one night only, 4/15

“We have the medical and public health tools we need to halt the HIV epidemic and enable people living with HIV to live relatively healthy lives. What we need now is the political will and community commitment to make sure every North Carolinian living with or at risk for HIV has the information, support, and healthcare they need.”

— Claire Hermann, NC AIDS Action Network
Undergrads from UNC's Dept. of Dramatic Art rehearse for Broadway Twisted, 4/8/2013.

Undergrads from UNC’s Dept. of Dramatic Art rehearse for BROADWAY TWISTED.

I know, I know, the causes and projects vying for your attention and cash are just overwhelming. But once in a while, somebody cooks up a fundraiser so good-humored and good-hearted that it revives a spirit drained by the continual supplication of Good Causes. Broadway Twisted, coming up Monday, April 15 in Chapel Hill’s Local 506, is such a one. For a mere $10 donation, you can enjoy an evening of show tunes sung by a cadre of actors singing across the gender divide–and your money will go to the NC AIDS Action Network, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. The concert will showcase some high-class singing and carrying on, but what makes it great is that it showcases people at their best. Giving their time and talent, men and women from the theater community are joining forces to do something about a problem it is easy to lose sight of if you are not, for instance, one of the tens of thousands of people in North Carolina who are living with HIV.

Broadway Twisted is the brainchild of Nathaniel P. Claridad, an MFA student in the UNC Professional Actor Training Program, and pretty boy Bobby in the current PlayMakers Rep production of Cabaret. PRC/Cabaret, along with Manbites Dog Theater and its upcoming production, The Homosexuals, are the official presenters, with Tim Scales and his company Wagon Wheel Arts Promotion donating production assistance. Claridad will direct the concert, and PlayMakers’ affable associate artistic director Jeffrey Meanza will emcee.

Taylor Mac, right, in PRC's Cabaret. Josh Tobin as the Gorilla. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

Taylor Mac, right, in PRC’s Cabaret. Josh Tobin as the Gorilla. Photo: Jon Gardiner.

The biggest draw is Cabaret’s Emcee, the New York performance artist and Obie Award-winner Taylor Mac.  One wonders what gender-swapping may mean in his case. Lisa Brescia, the powerful Broadway singer currently in the Sally Bowles role in Cabaret will also appear, along with the show’s excellent music director and band leader Mark Hartman. Local community favorites include Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley, PRC members also in Cabaret. (All these people are performing gratis on their one night off.) Will Ray sweep in wearing his Lady Bracknell dress, or may we hope for something scantier?

Doors open at 7:30, Broadway Twisted starts at 8, and will run about 90 minutes. (Due to NC Liquor Laws, membership is required to attend shows at Local 506. Memberships are $3 and available at the door on the night of the performance.) Tickets $10 at the door, or at You can spend your extra cash on raffle items. It’s for a good cause.

“36,500 people are living with HIV in North Carolina. One in five don’t know their status. Treatment can reduce transmission by up to 96% according to a recent UNC study, but only 30% of people diagnosed with HIV in NC are getting the care they need to be virally suppressed. “

— Claire Hermann, NC AIDS Action Network

The NC AIDS Action Network (NCAAN) is North Carolina’s only statewide advocacy organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS, their loved ones, and those at risk of acquiring HIV/AIDS in North Carolina. NCAAN and our thousands of Action Team members advocate for sound policies that improve access to care and prevent new cases of HIV, educate the public about HIV/AIDS related issues, challenge stigma, and strengthen our statewide community of advocates living with HIV/AIDS and allies.

Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BC/EFA) is one of the nation’s leading industry-based, nonprofit AIDS fundraising and grant-making organizations. By drawing upon the talents, resources and generosity of the American theatre community, since 1988 BC/EFA has raised more than $225 million for essential services for people with AIDS and other critical illnesses across the United States. BC/EFA awards annual grants to more than 450 AIDS and family service organizations nationwide and is the major supporter of the social service programs at The Actors Fund, including the HIV/AIDS Initiative, the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, the Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, The Dancers’ Resource and the Stage Managers’ Project.


Life is a CABARET at PlayMakers

Taylor Mac as the Emcee (standing) with the Ensemble in PRC's CABARET. Photo:: Jon Gardiner/PRC.

Taylor Mac as the Emcee (standing) with the Ensemble in PRC’s saucy production of CABARET. Photo:: Jon Gardiner/PRC.

PlayMakers Repertory Company kicks out the stops to close it 2012-13 mainstage season (through April 21) with the musical Cabaret, set in early 1930s Berlin, where the burgeoning Fascist movement brings an end to the frenetic hedonism of the late Weimar Republic. Although the earliest form of the popular musical and film is nearly fifty years old, PRC has based its production on the 1998 Broadway revival. Here PRC’s artistic director Joseph Haj directs; the choreography is by  Casey Sams, and the music director is Mark Hartman, both guest artists who have done fine work in the Paul Green Theatre in previous years.

The role of the Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub–where the girls are pretty, and the boys are pretty–is crucial to setting the tone of the production. It is filled here by New York performance artist Taylor Mac, who imbues his polymorphously lascivious character with danger, scorn and latent tragedy behind his elaborate make-up. Under the harsh lighting designed by Josh Epstein, Mac  bounds and slithers around the stage and into the audience with demonic grace, taunting and enticing us all to leave worries behind and enter the club with its careless sensual pleasures. Designer Jennifer Caprio has given him a very large number of costumes, from the outrageous corset to the simple black dress, and most of the time he gets to show off his legs, which are well worth the looking. However, it is Mac’s mobile face that rivets the attention. His eyes are wide-set and differently shaped, the bones around them strong and prominent, the mouth wide and flexible. Beneath the thick make-up and glittering decorations, this face expresses the spectrum of emotion. He’s lurid, he’s sordid…but he’s not one-dimensional, so in the show’s final scene, he is truly tragic.

Director Haj has kept his eye firmly on the big matters in this show, and it pays off well in that last scene, when the consequences of treating politics like a minor interruption of the big party become deadly clear. At other times, one wishes for a little more care with the smaller scenes that lead to the big showy songs. Lisa Brescia, seen a few months ago in a fine performance as Ivy Weston in Theatre Raleigh’s August, Osage County, uses her powerful voice wonderfully in the Sally Bowles role, but she is not quite believable in her moments with the besotted young American writer Cliff. In this version, Sally’s not an ingenue, but a willfully ignorant woman, no longer young, clinging to her gin, her men, and her club act in an increasingly desperate pretense of enjoying herself. As is usually the case, free sex has a high price: Sally leaves her fur coat at the abortionist’s, and abandons Cliff’s love and protection to return to the Kit Kat and its nasty owner, Max (Ray Dooley).

Cliff Bradshaw is an ingenue–or at least, he’s an innocent. As the story opens, he’s headed to Berlin to work on his novel (having already failed to write it in London and Paris). On the train, he meets a German man, Ernst Ludwig (well-played by Brett Bolton), and at passport control, Cliff casually becomes complicit in the man’s “smuggling,” and is unthinkingly pulled into his orbit. It’s a role that requires some delicacy, and MFA candidate John Dreher demonstrates how much he has acquired in his time in the UNC Professional Actor Training Program. Unlike Sally, Cliff pays attention to the news, and gradually–despite his introduction to the distracting pleasures of the Kit Kat–begins to grasp the situation as the Nazis gain power in Germany. Dreher convincingly makes the transition from guileless American dilettante to young man of the world, even appearing to become physically harder and more assertive. Unfortunately, there is just no chemistry and little nuanced emotion between Dreher and Brescia, so their smaller scenes fall a bit flat, which makes the big emotional scenes and songs slightly confusing.

The emotional center of the production lies in the relationship between Fraulein Schneider, owner of the rooming house to which Ludwig introduces Cliff, and where much of the action occurs, and Herr Schultz, a fruit-seller and one of her roomers. The roles are played–and sung–beautifully by long-time UNC colleagues, Julie Fishell and Jeffery Blair Cornell. There is some chemistry–wonderful in itself, its shows what’s lacking between Dreher and Brescia. Fishell and Cornell have a lot of stage relationships under their belts, but I’ve never seen them better together, and I had no idea they could both sing so sweetly. The relationship between sour, tired, poor, Fraulein Schneider and lonely, kind, gift-bringing Herr Schultz blooms into a romance, and gives Cabaret its heart. The moment of their celebration becomes the pivot point of the story as well, when the adorable Fraulein Kost (Kelsey Didion, in fine form and a fine kimono), the roomer who makes the rent by making it with sailors, casually mentions Schultz’ Jewishness in front of the Nazi Ludwig at the engagement party. She’s without malice, without awareness of possible consequences–very like Cliff on the train. But this time, consequences are immediate: Ludwig furiously displays his hatred of Jews. He’s momentarily placated by Fraulein Kost and the other guests singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” with its many references to the Fatherland, but the pretty song might as well be titled, “Let the Killing Begin.” Suddenly, the atmosphere changes from torrid to frozen, and the show begins its spiral through irony to tragedy.

Haj has done an excellent job of making this Cabaret much more than a sybaritic entertainment. He makes all the salient points, and crosses effortlessly from the blazing light to its brutal shadows. But he has hardly neglected the entertainment, what with Taylor Mac skipping around and a bevy of young women in stockings and little else dancing and kicking and singing (Dee Dee Batteast outstanding among them, and touching as the Chanteuse). The set ought to win prizes for Marion Williams, with its great use of the stage space and its technical capabilities. The band, which she tented with brightly-lit girders, is very good (it includes Greg Gelb on clarinet and tenor sax, and John Hanks on drums). But there is one technical issue that is really problematic: the wireless headset microphones. I don’t really know why they need them in that theater, but surely if they use them, they shouldn’t be so obvious. During the first act on opening night, sound quality was mushy, though it was much improved after intermission. But the visual problems remained. Should we be distracted from Julie Fishell’s lovely duet with Jeffrey Cornell because we are counting the pieces of tape holding her microphone to her face and neck? Should the plunging back of of Lisa Brescia’s beaded gown be marred by a snaking microphone cable? Should the first thing you notice when some shapely girl shakes her butt in your face be the rectangular box of the microphone transmitter? I don’t think so.

Taylor Mac as the Emcee, with the Kit Kat Club dancers in PlayMakers' CABARET. Photo: Jon Gardiner/PRC.

Taylor Mac as the Emcee, with the Kit Kat Klub dancers in PlayMakers’ CABARET, now running in the Paul Green Theatre. Photo: Jon Gardiner/PRC.

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