Thursday, August 9, 2012

Critical Bitch #1: Into The Woods

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine hail from a generation of artists absolutely smitten with psycho-analysis. Through this love affair and with the inspiration of Bruno Bettelheim's Jungian breakdown of classic fairy tales The Uses of Enchantment, 'Into The Woods' was born. The orginal musical as created by Sondheim and Lapine is a magical, grotesque, rarely sentimental and often heartbreaking in depth analysis of parent / child relationships and their repercussions on the community in which they exist. The Public Theater's solution to the psychological angst played out in 'Into The Woods' is typical of the current generation... simply take an antidepressant! 

The prozac in this production under the direction of Timothy Sheader and Liam Steel comes in the form of a little boy (played in rotation by Noah Radcliffe and Jack Broderick), straight out of an 80's Spielberg family summer blockbuster, replete with red hoodie and sleeping bag. The unnamed boy, we'll call him Zac for the purposes of this review, (get it?) fulfills the duties of the traditionally older and omniscient Narrator. Zac, whose shoehorned story serves as bookends to each act, is a cute device throughout the lighter and zippier Act 1. However, in Act 2 his role becomes much more muddled, particularly at the point where the denizens of Fairy Tale Land essentially decide to feed him, (god? fate?) to the giant and take the story into their own hands. 'Wait!' you're thinking 'they've killed a little innocent boy?!' Not to fear. Lights immediately bump up downstage on his double, soundly asleep. It's all a dream! Phew! No danger here. 

It's that lack of danger that cheapens the proceedings. The stakes plummet and Zac's treacly reunion with his father at the conclusion of the play gives us assurance that the nightmares of childhood or the terrors of parenting are simply no match for the warm embrace of a father and his run away boy. 

Now given all of the above you might be wondering if I actually saw 'Into The Woods'. I assure you I did. But fear not 'Woodsies'! Much of what you love about this show is still there and in many ways improved upon. The physical production is glorious, embracing our cool, New York urban sensibilities with the magic of nature and the sense of escape one might feel getting lost in Central Park. No small feat in an open air, 1800+ seat theater, Sheader and Steel provide raucous and whimsical staging that tells a clear and engaging, if misguided version of the story.  Donna Murphy is terrifying and resplendent as the all too human, evil witch. Her unstoppable vocals and dramatic choices quite possibly take us deeper into those woods that Sondheim and Lapine envisioned than any before her. While not known for their musical prowess, Dennis O'Hare and Amy Adams as The Baker and His Wife provide a very elegant and thoughtful exploration of the frustrations encountered by couples grappling with infertility. Adams, however has taken a bit of the prozac and can't quite move past her sunny Disney Princess persona, which again, becomes problematic in the darker Act 2. O'Hare's baker is indeed rich and moving yet it must be said that some of the music should have been adjusted to do away with his longer held notes. Our remaining principals Gideon Glick, Sarah Stiles, Jessie Mueller and Ivan Hernandez do a fitting job bringing to life the charmingly satirical characters of Story Book Land. 

The sentimental streaks inflicted on this production by Shaeder and Steel and their red cloaked creation Zac, seem to create an ultimately overly simplified and tidy affair. Sondheim's brilliance has never owed anything to tidiness. My advice to the theater goer that has camped out overnight for her two coveted tickets is to skip the prozac. Arrive after the first 30 seconds of each act and leave 60 seconds before they come down. This way you might better enjoy the twisted and tangled 'Woods' Sondheim and Lapine sought to lead us into.

1 comment:

Kate Hughes said...

You're all about defending danger lately - first True Blood and now Into The Woods - I like it! Some of the best plays,tv, movies etc. are the ones that leave us feeling a little uncomfortable and a little unsafe.