May 15, 2013

Favorite Fairy Tales Frolic With Wild Wit, Whimsy, Magic, and Music In Fiasco Theater’s Spin on Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” at McCarter

LUSTY AND LUPINE: The wolf (Noah Brody) charms Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young) in Fiasco Theater’s spin on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9.

LUSTY AND LUPINE: The wolf (Noah Brody) charms Little Red Ridinghood (Emily Young) in Fiasco Theater’s spin on Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical “Into the Woods,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9.

Your favorite fairy tales — Cinderella, Little Red Ridinghood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel — they start with wishes, and “I wish” is a repeated refrain in Into the Woods (1987), Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark and psychological, whimsical and musical spin on the Brothers Grimm. In pursuit of their wishes, all of Sondheim’s characters venture deep into the woods: “Into the woods,/it’s time to go./I hate to leave,/I have to, though./into the woods—/it’s time, and so/I must begin my journey.”

As their specific quests — to escape, to visit Grandma, to sell a cow, to find a prince — continue and interweave with each other, the plot dashes ahead at a rapid pace. The familiar fairy tales remain, but the principal characters develop in interesting, complex, three-dimensional ways, moving far beyond the pre-intermission “happy ending.” A childless baker and his wife, seeking to remove a witch’s curse so they can have a baby, help to tie plot strands together as they join the fray in search of four objects that the witch demands: a red cape (from Red Ridinghood), a white cow (from Jack), yellow hair (from Rapunzel), and a golden slipper (from Cinderella).

Fiasco Theater’s “reimagined” rendition of this much-loved show, playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through June 9, will not disappoint Into the Woods aficionados. Though a single piano, instead of full orchestra, provides most of the musical accompaniment, along with bassoon, cello, trumpet, and guitar picked up and played sporadically by the actors on stage; and just ten actors, with some inventive doubling and tripling of roles, play all the parts; this does not feel like a “stripped down” production.

On the contrary, the wildly imaginative staging, shifting of roles, costuming, sound effects, set and lighting and the contagious spirit of collaboration — a trademark of Fiasco Theater, which recently presented a highly acclaimed six-actor version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline off-Broadway — make this production a lavish feast of music, story-telling, and creativity, further enriched by the irresistible engagement of the audience’s imagination.

Given the frenetic nature of the original, with so many plot strands and such an array of wildly realistic and unrealistic, natural and supernatural characters and extravagant events, Fiasco Theater does a remarkable job of bringing clarity to the proceedings. If there at times seems to be a bit too much going on here — too much plot, too long an evening (almost three hours, with one intermission), too many disparate characters — with the consequent difficulty for the audience in really caring about or identifying with all these questing figures, then perhaps Sondheim and Lapine, rather than Fiasco and McCarter, must take the responsibility.

Based on The Uses of Enchantment (1975), Bruno Bettelheim’s psychological interpretations of fairy tales, Into the Woods is about the importance of stories, stories that are handed down from generation to generation. It is about what those stories mean and how they are told — stories about human experience: growing up, discovering who we are, learning how to accept and to overcome being alone. And it’s about parents and step-parents. “Mother cannot guide you./Now you’re on your own./Only me beside you./Still you’re not alone./No one is alone.”

Then in the second act (“Once upon a time … later …”), as the protagonists all must go back into the woods, the story is about darker concerns: moral decisions (facing the giants!), death, loss, adult passions, and broken marriages. But, perhaps even more importantly, and especially vibrantly realized in this production, Into the Woods is about the sheer delight of stories and the collaboration of storytellers and artists, along with listeners, participating together to bring life and meaning to these stories. To watch and to participate in this rollicking event with these likable, enormously talented performers is a pleasure.

The Fiasco ensemble, several of whose members emerged from the Brown University theater program, takes imaginative collaboration and ensemble playing to new levels. Accompanied by the uncompromisingly adept pianist/music director Matt Castle, an integral part of the proceedings as his piano wheels around the stage from scene to scene, this cast does everything with skill, precision, and abandon — from moving sets, to manipulating props, to transforming costumes and characters, to singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, and acting with intensity.

Jessie Austrian, a founder and co-artistic director of Fiasco, plays the Baker’s Wife with memorable conviction and credibility, engaging the audience in her plight, first as childless wife, then as protective mother of a baby, then the straying wife in the second act. She delivers powerful duets and a reflective, moving second-act solo, “Moments in the Woods.”

As the witch (the role originated on Broadway by Bernadette Peters), Jennifer Mudge rises to the challenge with her frightening, witchy tormenting of Rapunzel and the Baker and his wife in the first act, then her transformation into a beautiful princess, her loss of magical powers (“Witch’s Lament”) and her acquired wisdom, all delivered with dramatic and vocal power and appeal.

Emily Young does dynamic double duty as Rapunzel and as a feisty, aggressive Little Red Ridinghood, complete with wolf skin cloak in place of red cloak after her violent, triumphant encounter with the wolf. Claire Karpen’s Cinderella brings interesting added dimensions to the romanticized fairy tale role, as she interacts, in action and song, with not just her eccentrically nasty step sisters and step mother, but also with her deceased mother, a sympathetic Baker’s Wife, a less-than-ideal prince/husband and a host of other characters. Liz Hayes lends strong support with a suitably harsh edge as both Cinderella’s stepmother and Jack’s mother.

Among the male contingent Noah Brody and Andy Grotelueschen share the prize for versatility and ubiquity — also for extraordinary talent and theatrical prowess of all sorts. Mr. Brody is a deliciously savage, scheming, and lascivious wolf as he sings and wheedles his way with Red Ridinghood (“There’s no possible way/to describe what you feel/when you’re talking to your meal!”).

And how, you might ask, does Mr. Brody also play both wicked step-sister Lucinda and Cinderella’s prince? The answer is a delight to behold, as the two princes’ act one and act two duet (with Mr. Grotelueschen), “Agony” and its reprise, provide comical highlights of the show and timeless commentary on the arrested male psyche. Mr. Grotelueschen, burly and bearded, also offers, with only a bell for a costume and prop, a first-rate characterization of Jack’s cow and a memorable Florinda, wicked second stepsister to Cinderella.

As the Baker, Ben Steinfeld, also a founder of Fiasco and co-artistic director, creates a thoughtful, sympathetic character, as he struggles first with the demands of the witch, then with his wife, then with the perils of fatherhood and other dilemmas throughout the play.

Patrick Mulryan as Jack and the royal Steward contributes two contrasting and credible roles, a powerful voice and strong presence, and Paul L. Coffey as the Mysterious Man adds the appropriate air of mystery and musical expertise both vocally and instrumentally.

Mr. Steinfeld and Mr. Brody, listed as co-directors of the production, have pulled together the multiple disparate elements of this show with focus, dynamic pacing, and extraordinary coordination of acting, music, set, props, lighting, sound, and special effects.

Derek McLane’s imposing set, looking like the enlarged and exploded insides of a piano, provides a fascinating, provocative backdrop to the action. The long, vertical metallic brown rods loom over the set and threaten like the tall dark trees of a forest. The set is a masterpiece in its own right, with definite relevance to the events of the evening. Whether it actually furthers or distracts from Fiasco’s purpose of stripping down to essentials in order to emphasize the actors, the text, and the story is another question.

Choreography by Lisa Shriver, inventive costuming by Whitney Locher, dramatic lighting by Tim Cryan, and striking sound by Darron L. West all contribute essential elements to the stimulation of the audience’s imagination and the creation of this wonderful, magical, sometimes terrifying, sometimes whimsical world of Into the Woods.

To create a cow with just a bell, or a wolf with just a stuffed head and a little leather for paws, or a magical hen with a feather duster, or birds out of paper, or a tower from a wheeling ladder, or a truly terrifying giantess with just a shadow and the booming of a bass drum, not to mention a whole world of Grimm’s fairy tales on a small stage — that’s theater magic, and it can be found in abundance at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre during the next four weeks, in Fiasco Theatre’s exhilarating production of Into the Woods.