Theater Review: Into the Woods

You wouldn’t think that an eleven person ensemble could manage to upstage an extravagant Disney-produced film with Meryl Streep in it, but the impossible has been done. The Fiasco/Roundabout Theater production of Into the Woods was everything the movie wasn’t: silly, bare bones, and not a single famous name in the cast.

And it was amazing.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually liked the movie, as evidenced by my review of it a few months ago. For a movie version of my beloved Into the Woods, they did a pretty good job. However, after having seen a full production again, it was made glaringly obvious what the movie was missing, and what it really needed.

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If I had to sum up the show in one word, it would be charming. I was charmed the whole time by everything I was seeing in front of me. There is no curtain, so when you walk into the theater you immediately see the set, the centerpiece of which is a piano. The sides of the stage walls are also industrial-looking piano tops, and the border facing the audience (do these things have technical names?) is broken down piano keys (if you’ve ever looked inside the piano and see what the keys look like, that’s what you should be picturing right now). The back wall of the stage has a series of intersecting ropes, which are also reminiscent of the inner workings of a piano. Mismatched chandeliers hung from the rafters as well as from the seating area of the theater. In addition to the piano, the stage had some seating, a dressform and a number of tables, all of which would be moved and used in various creative ways throughout the show. This ramshackle feel worked well and gave the sense that the actors were all playing in an old attic.

The actors come out on stage before the show begins, giving it an informal feel, as though they are inviting the audience in. This also gave me a chance to observe the costumes, and based on what they were wearing I was able to pinpoint, for the most part, who was which character. I was also excited to be sitting close enough to really see the details in the costumes. Each actor had a base outfit, somewhat resembling Victorian undergarments which they added to as the show went on to represent different characters. This added to the feel of the old attic – it read (brilliantly) as a bunch of children playing an elaborate game of dress up in the attic. Other details which added to this: the wolf was a stuffed wolf head on a plaque, the horses were hobby horses, and Milky White the cow was played by a person wearing a cowbell.

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It sounds kind of crazy, right? Yet it all worked so well. I wanted to play in that attic so badly, and be a part of the story that they were telling.

What made the production so brilliant was the cast. They each played multiple parts (with the exception of the Baker, Baker’s Wife and the Witch, who all merge with the other stories to much to make this plausible). They all knew their various roles so well, and were able to bring subtle differences in their mannerisms so that there was no point in which you didn’t know who was who. The same two men play both the princes and Cinderella’s stepsisters (you knew they were the princes because of their jackets and cockiness, and then the stepsisters because they held a curtain rod with two frilly curtains in front of them, and acted effeminate). Cinderella’s prince also played the Wolf (as is tradition, because it is supposed to represent two sides of his personality), and whilst doing so he held the aforementioned stuffed wolf head. It was all so delightfully creative, and imagination at it’s best. The characters were pretending, and they were acting the audience to do so as well. And while some may not enjoy this style, I find it witty and smart. It’s the idea that you can make theater – or games – out of practically nothing at all. (Though I am well aware that these sets and costumes and whatnot were strategically placed and purchased for specific purposes; but the idea that you can have fun with what’s around you was what struck me.)

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Being a big Into the Woods aficionado, there were parts of it that I was curious to see before going in. For example, how does the Witch transform? What do they do about the Giant in Act II? I’m sure these are all things that directors have to consider when putting on a production of the show – those familiar with it are expecting those moments and are likely as curious as I am to see how they are done.

The Witch first appears in a knit hat, a crocheted afghan and a gold mask. Her “ugliness” comes through her body language – hunched over, carrying herself a little more heavily. When she transforms, she takes on the look of a character from Cabaret; she is no longer in the long white nightgown but in a short black one, hair down and all over the place. Of course, with this minimal production, she doesn’t have the crazy transformation with smoke that one might expect. It’s a little more subtle – she disappears and then reappears in her new outfit. And her new outfit is so vastly different from the rest of the cast’s white clothes that she stands out, which is the purpose of the transformation. The giant was a little more simple, done with a megaphone and shadows. Again, it was this minimal quality that made the show so amazing.

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As mentioned earlier, the costumes were lovely. I think they rank among some of my favorites of anything I’ve seen. Each character wore a slightly different version of a similar outfit. All of them seemed to play on the Victorian era. Red Ridinghood, representing a child, had a shorter, eyelet dress with an ombre red affect happening at the bottom. Cinderella alternated between a regular long nightgown with a shawl and putting a gold skirt over it when she attends the ball. The Baker’s Wife had a blouse and gown, which she put an apron and shawl over. The men wore basic pants and shirts, with jackets that were interchangeable depending on which character they were portraying at the time. The details on the costumes were beautiful: eyelet trims, swiss dot fabric, little ruffles and whatnot.

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I have seen many productions of Into the Woods: the original Broadway, the revival with Vanessa Williams (which was TERRIBLE aside from the Baker’s Wife, by the way), a high school production, the Shakespeare in the Park version a few summers ago, the movie, and now the Fiasco version. By far, the Fiasco takes the number two spot (for number one will always belong to the original, which was not only my first Into the Woods experience but also my first Broadway experience), though I must say that is a VERY, VERY close second… it might even be a tie.

The show is only open through April 12, so if you want to see it, you need to act fast. There’s a very good chance I might see it again, just to experience the charm of it all again, and to spend a little more time in that attic.

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