Deconstructing the Woods

April 7, 2017

 

Into the Woods is a great musical, but it’s difficult to produce. There are intricate sets and costumes, a difficult script and big moral dilemmas to be dealt with for each performance. And this assumes that the audience can keep up with the five intertwining major plots.

 

Luckily, the world now has a new, minimalist production of the classic musical. Performed by only 11 actors who also play all of the musical accompaniment and sound effects live on stage, the show seems like something you would see in a small black-box theater. Generally, all of the set pieces and actors stay on stage throughout the show and change characters effortlessly with small changes of costume and demeanor.

 

 Audiences used to the large-scale touring productions SHN usually picks may find The Fiasco Theater’s version a little underwhelming. Rapunzel’s tower is replaced with a ladder and curtains are used as ball gowns for the stepsisters instead of elaborate sets and costumes.

 

If you’re willing to use your imagination, however, you’re in for a real treat. This minimalistic Into the Woods is proof that any show can be done with less and still be a wonderful experience.

“Stay with me, the world is dark and wild. Stay a child while you can be a child.”

– The Witch, Into the Woods

Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods has experienced a well-deserved revival in recent years after the success of the 2014 film. Despite the fairy-tale themes, the show is not always easy to follow. At any one time, up to five stories are being told simultaneously on stage. When it works, it feels magical but if any small narrative fails, the whole production stops working, like a clock missing a cog.

 

The first act of the show follows Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood as well as a Baker and his wife. These last two tie the show together by searching for items to give to Rapunzel’s witch so that she will grant the Baker and his Wife the ability to have children. An hour-and-a-half of jokes and Sondheim music later, the act ends with the song “Ever After” and each story reaches its expected end. Many people unfamiliar with the show leave at intermission and miss the second, more complex half of the show where the characters’ lives begin to fall apart.

 

 What makes this production so amazing is how seamlessly the stories are told without the extravagant costumes, props and number of actors that are traditional to the show. Everything is done so smoothly, many in the audience will not realize how much work goes into that kind of accuracy and flawless execution. With almost every actor and prop remaining on stage throughout the show, every transition must be thought out and choreographed as much as the action of the plot.

 

Given this, the seamlessness of the show is astounding. The very few moments where the audience is even aware of the cast’s struggles (like when Cinderella’s prince must immediately transition into one of her stepsisters) are played off as a joke with grace. The piano player in particular is a phenomenal and easy-to-miss gem of this production. Sitting onstage and playing for nearly the whole show, he is often the only accompaniment for major songs in the show. Meanwhile both he and his piano are wheeled around the stage by the cast and used as a key set piece.

 

 By stripping the show of all its trappings, The Fiaso Theater’s production points the focus back at the heart of the show—love and loss. By stripping down the beauty of the set and costumes the audience is forced to focus on the harsh truths tackled in Into The Woods. In this production, the grittiness of the fairytales as well as the trials that come after are more important than the beauty we’ve come to expect from other interpretations. This version asks for more imagination from the audience, but in the end, creates an equally satisfying world and fulfilling show.

 

Into the Woods is playing in San Francisco March 7 through April 2, 2017 at the Golden Gate Theater and then in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater from April 4 to May 14, 2017. Tickets range from $60 to $275 and can be purchased online or at the box office. 

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