Saturday, January 17, 2015

Into the Woods

Jim Cox
No, this isn't a review of the movie. I'm talking here about the Fiasco Theater production, which is currently in previews Off Broadway at the Laura Pels Theater. It's terrific: innovative, warm, funny, sad, infectiously goofy, and performed by a charming cast that lacks the studio-scrubbed pipes and carefully groomed good looks of the cast featured in the film. I'm paying the company a complement, by the way, and not implying that they're ugly--though if they were, that'd be cool, too. Into the Woods, after all, purports to be about our favorite fairy tale characters, but it's really about how messy and flawed and directly contradictory human beings are. Botoxed actors who wear their rags perfectly, and boast artful smudges on their faces, are kind of missing the point. 

So are productions (and films) that take the woods literally, at least as I now see it. Don't get me wrong: I saw the original Broadway production many years ago, and the film version about a month ago, and I thought both were fine. But neither one caused Into the Woods to work its way into my blood, brain, and soul the way that, say, past productions of Follies, Company, and Sweeney Todd have. I know plenty of people for whom Woods is top tier Sondheim. But me? I've just never understood what the fuss was about.

Yet regardless of how connected we feel to particular Sondheim shows, most are solid and layered enough to lend themselves to all kinds of different interpretations and stagings, and this has resulted in some serious personal epiphanies (and an equal amount of disillusion). I'd never understood Follies fanaticism until I saw the 2011 production, for example--it helped the show click with me in a huge way, while plenty of serious devotees of the musical just hated it. I rushed out of town once to see a regional production of Company that many aficionados raved about, and was utterly unmoved. Go figure; Sondheim shows are funny that way. But with this in mind, I approached the Fiasco production of Into the Woods as a personal deal-breaker: If it, too, left me cold, I'd let Woods remain forever a casual acquaintance, mentioning it in passing in classes, tossing it a cursory footnote or parenthetical aside in future scholarly work, giving it the occasional, distracted Spotify listen.

But guess what? Three's a charm with this one: I just loved, loved, loved this production. I want to marry it, or at least shack up with it for a time. 

Its biggest innovation is that it has dispensed with the woods. This intimate production instead places its 11 actors, its accompanying upright piano, and its random explosion of props in what co-directors Ben Steinfeld and Noah Brody have described in interviews as an attic of memory. There are no trees, no moss, no speckled sunlight. Instead, the set looks like what would happen if someone had an elaborate fever dream during which an attic melded, Dali-style, with an enormous piano. Reading about this in advance made no sense to me, but the idea turns out to be absolutely brilliant in execution. It worked, at least for me, to peel away a layer of distance that has heretofore prohibited me from connecting emotionally with the Into the Woods, or being terribly impressed with its subtext.

Because yeah, yeah, yeah, life is messy and so are the woods, bad and good things happen in life as they do in the woods, different fairy tale characters reflect aspects of the human condition and they enter the woods to seek wish fulfillment, and some die and some don't, and whatever. The Fiasco staging narrows the focus, just a little, but the payoff is huge. Absent the woods--and thus life in a big-picture all-of-civilization sense--Into the Woods hones in more directly on how simultaneously vital and destructive human relationships are. Maybe this has always been the case; maybe I'm a moron for not having seen, um, the trees for the forest. But never have I encountered a version of Woods that hammers home quite as clearly the myriad human strengths and flaws that serve, in the most maddeningly dichotomous ways, to impel interpersonal relationships.

No matter how it's approached, Into the Woods teems with the direct contradictions humans negotiate endlessly as we walk through our lives. Most of these contradictions can be found in the ways we relate to and influence one another: We nurture and destroy our children, mind and defy our parents, reject and repeat our pasts, take refuge in magic and spew cold, hard facts. We suffer from solitude and togetherness, from too much shelter and too much freedom. Things we think won't hurt a soul sometimes have catastrophic consequences; our rashest acts sometimes don't harm anyone at all.

Such dichotomies are built directly into the score, and feature prominently in its most beloved numbers: Woods is framed with warnings about how children will listen (until they won't), assurances that no one is alone (except when they are); reminders that everybody dies (but not entirely).

How better to explore these contradictions than with a cast of actors who are beautifully professional about being playful, silly, and a little insane? Especially when they evoke magical creatures while shoddily clad in and wielding props you'd find in an attic (crocheted blankets, knit caps, discarded toys and household items)? Whether real or metaphorical, attics are filled with contradictions of the most personal type. We pack attics with junk that has been left behind by our elders or outgrown by our children. We store items we don't want around, but that we just can't throw away. In attics, unwanted, broken, aging items become precious and magical. Attics, way more than woods, are where past meets present and dead meets living.

Performing with a "hey, kids, let's put on a show" attitude, the actors in the Fiasco production absorb themselves in their characters the way kids absorb themselves in elaborate pretend play on a rainy afternoon. The stepsisters wear hideous flowerpot hats and uglier curtains, and the witch's mask is a knit hat gone horribly wrong. Rapunzel's tower is a ladder, and the princes ride tattered hobby horses. The score is played (ably, by music director Matt Castle) on an old upright piano at center stage, which the cast members climb, fall off, gather tightly around. The characters--most of them, after all, human--wear their imperfections on their sleeves. And their imperfections embrace ever more dichotomies: characters are fierce and kind, cowardly and brave, selfish and giving, neurotic and capable, unsure and unwavering, capable of inflicting great damage and providing enormous comfort. The voices of the actors are not always the strongest I've heard; the random instruments they play (ably if not brilliantly) occasionally threaten to drown out their voices. All of this only made me love them, and the show, more.

The warts-and-all approach to the production was infectious, at least for me: the fourth wall breaks at the top of each act won me over immediately, and the intimate feel in the house made me less bothered by the group of schoolkids behind me. Cute and generally well-behaved, they occasionally distracted me with loudly whispered questions or commentary. Normally, when people around me so much as shift in their chairs, let alone kick regularly at the arm-rail next to my seat, I turn into a total bitch and shush them with increasing hostility and bile. This time, I was perfectly content to let the extraneous noise become part of the performance. We are all human after all, and thus we are all gloriously, beautifully flawed. And as the show tells us, sometimes children listen...and sometimes they don't.

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