Let’s be clear at the outset: It’s really, really easy to royally fuck up Into the Woods.
The world is littered with the festering corpses of high school, community theater, dinner theater, and one huge, putrid Broadway revival production of this show, all because its respective directors and performers are under some dim delusion that it’s a raucous comedy. Or a kids’ show. Or a sweet, simple crowd pleaser.
Yeah, no, said Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, who with this show created a complex universe of slippery morals, trauma, and tragedy in the guise of a fairy tale. Yeah, it’s funny sometimes. And yeah, Cinderella is here. But Into the Woods, like the witch who scuttles across the stage wrecking lives at every turn, is not to be crossed. You disrespect it, and it will dis you so hard that you will be removing its foot from your ass until the Tony Awards. Into the Woods, whether you’re the director or you’re in the audience, should always be approached with caution.
But here’s the good news: The new Shakespeare in the Park production of the show, which is currently playing at the Delacorte Theater, doesn’t fuck it up. This reinvention of the 1988 show, directed by Timothy Sheader, fully grasps the darkness and weirdness in the material, and its utter sense of hopeless unresolve. Even with a kid narrating things — and maybe because there’s a kid narrating things — there are no true happy endings, or even fully graspable endings at all. Told from his perspective, the show is constructed as his dream, or an act of imagination, as he runs away from his scolding dad. Indeed, all the designs look like cobbled-together nightmare versions of his toys, right down to the Ewok-ish set. The childlike take works here — and it’s certainly not more annoying than the suited narrator in the original. But it gives us a scaled-back, patchwork take on the show. On the night I went, even the singing seemed to be amped down from typically overblown Broadway proportions — a development that wasn’t unwelcome. Without all the vocalizing, the emotional core of the story felt clearer, the action more swift. A stark story benefits sometimes from stark telling.
The proceedings are bolstered by a couple of great performances — namely, Donna Murphy as the Witch, Sarah Stiles as a pitch-perfect Little Red Riding Hood, Ivan Hernandez as the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince, and Jessie Mueller as Cinderella. Donna Murphy is Donna Murphy — regal and forcefully sung, as always. But Sarah Stiles in particular is a standout, playing Little Red Riding Hood as a tough little kid trying to act grown up. It was easy to imagine her as a friend of the young narrator, a fellow survivor of familial trauma. Even Chip Zien, a holdover from the show’s amazing original Broadway cast, finds an affable humanity in the Mysterious Man.
I wish the same could be said for two of the show’s most important leads — the Baker and his wife. If this Into the Woods could be said to go badly wrong in any single place, it’s in the casting of Denis O’Hare and Amy Adams in these crucial roles. Adams can find exactly no subtext (or grief, or irony, or a pulse) in Sondheim’s childless housewife. I get that we’re watching a boy’s idealized version of a mother he never knew, but this take is too dumbed-down for the smart material, which gives the character so much wry humor and irony. To blunt all that good stuff with straightforward geniality just feels like a cheat. O’Hare, on the other hand, is at least attempting something specific with his herky-jerky, dunderheaded Baker. I wish I knew what the hell it was. My best guesses have included Homer Simpson, an impression of Chad Kimball in Memphis minus the accent, and a dimwitted basset hound. It’s… weird.
Still, though, even with the two of them so off the mark, this bold production is unique. Even when Into the Woods makes its treacherous switch from a comedy to a slightly macabre morality play, this production rides the twists and turns, rather than trying to hide them or play them for laughs. People die. Lives are ruined and thrown badly off course. The unsentimental treatment of these events, ironically, gives them a resonance. Even Jack’s parting with his beloved cow has a sweet, realistic sting. None of it is cute, but life’s drama and trauma seldom are. Now if only other directors who attempt this show could understand as much.
photo: Joan Marcus via The Associated Press