BWW Reviews: The Hypocrites' INTO THE WOODS Turns a Masterpiece Into Child's Play
Amid a chaotic moment for the characters in "Into the Woods," the Narrator tells the audience that we must excuse them, because they are not used to making choices. Perhaps the same logic can be applied to the creative team of The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods," because, from the disjointed production currently running at The Mercury Theater, it seems they had too many choices and simply decided to forgo any choosing and implement them all.
Truthfully, I feel put it in an odd position reviewing this Hypocrites production due to the fact that the two acts of the show feel so different in nature that they truly become two separate entities. And, yes, the two acts in "Into the Woods" are meant to operate as contrasting dialogues; the first act playing out the familiar fairy tales (mostly) as we know them and the second act exploring the much darker side of what happens after the "happily ever after." However, in The Hypocrites' production, the worlds of the play in each act are so different that when we eventually see these fairy tale characters dealing with real life issues in the second act, they simply feel like new characters altogether, making the contrast less effective and causing the production to not feel like a cohesive piece.
First, I must admit that I didn't fully understand the design concept. The set (designed by William Boles) depicts a mix between a child's playground and a child's playroom, while the cast makes use of the playthings to tell the story. This is all fine, except I can't figure out if they are supposed to be children themselves, a theatre troupe performing for children, or simply adults utilizing kids' toys creatively. I understand the general correlation between fairy tales and children, of course, but for a concept that is so infused into the entire production, a more concrete interpretation of the design never became quite clear to me.
Something else that had me searching for reasoning is the choice to have nearly all of the actors perform more than one role. Perhaps it is for reasons as simple as payroll, but I can't help get the feeling that it is just another piece of shtick added to this production (and, boy, there is plenty of shtick). Impressive, certainly, but I'm still struggling to figure out how this decision is in any way supported by the script or how the script is enhanced by it. (And, to point out a particular downfall of this double-duty casting: each actor had mainly plainclothes on for the duration of the show and would "become" each character with the use of certain accessories. When we see the transformation of the hideous witch into a young, beautiful woman at the end of the first act, much of the effect is lost due to the audience having seen that actress throughout the entire act looking nearly just as she does after her Witch's transformation).
The questioning of motivation proved, in fact, to be a theme of my experience while in the audience of "Into the Woods." Some things are certainly creative or funny, but it doesn't stop the sense that the production team wants to jam-pack every idea they came up with into the show without examining whether there is much motivation behind these decisions. I appreciate theatricality and innovation, but it must be, in some way, supported by (or supporting) the script for it to work well. And, unfortunately, motivation for most of the choices made by The Hypocrites never seemed to appear.
The first act feels a bit like trying to fit pieces from different puzzles together. It seems the show can't figure what it wants to be. Although the musical itself is a satire of classic fairy tales, The Hypocrites' production occasionally gives us what seems to be a satire of "Into the Woods." Then, there are the occasionally highly stylistic moments; some that are actually quite creative and could work well had these moments not felt out-of-place within all of the other ideas. But, most of all, the direction taken in the first act is comedy. Not just any comedy, but director Geoff Button seems to encourage the actors to infuse as much modern-day sitcom humor into the script as possible. I found myself thinking I was watching an episode of "Friends" at one point. And, don't get me wrong: I love "Friends" and often enjoy such humor, but it feels awkward and forced within a script that is already infused with such smart, and often subtle, jokes. Multiple times it is these wonderful jokes that are exploited for all they are worth by this production which, in turn, makes the jokes lose their humor. So much of the humor in "Into the Woods" stems from the characters being so sincere in what they are saying they are unaware of any humor in it. For the most part, the actors on the Mercury stage know they are being funny. It makes "Into the Woods" seem, well, kitschy (an adjective I never thought I would use to describe this musical). If Button could have focused his vision a bit better, some very nice moments may have arisen.
This focus on making the show chock-full of humor has some other real downfalls, too. It makes some of the strong female characters come off as nothing but ditzy girls (something that is nearly impossible to shed in the second act where we are to see the characters grow); Allison Hendrix as the Baker's Wife, in particular, is clearly a very talented comedic actor. However, because she is focused simply on finding the humor in anything and everything, one of the most complex characters in the show is reduced to a one-dimensional modern day girl. Even in the second act during her big moment of realization, there is no real character growth.
The fluffiness of the first act also doesn't allow for the characters to hold any real stakes in their wants and needs. We are told the Baker and his wife desperately want a child. But, with the focus on the humor, it is hard to believe there is any motivation for all of the struggles they are putting themselves through to get this child. They both seem much more concerned with putting on a show (although Joel Ewing as The Baker gives a very nice second act performance.)
I understand if the idea is to make the first act as light as possible in order to deepen the darkness of the second half. However, not all of the first act is happy-go-lucky and, if Button had allowed his actors to explore moments of unease within their world in the first act, the audience would have been able to connect to real characters (right now, they feel more like caricatures). In doing so, the show could have established a sense of rising uncertainty which could then usher us nicely into act two. There is actually one excellent moment of this in the first act, and the only time I felt anything in this act, during "It Takes Two"; a song between the Baker and his wife as they are discovering the different sides of themselves (and their relationship) while in the woods. In a fairly jaunty song, the couple sing the following line: "And once we're past, let's hope the changes last." Button allows the actors to take a moment and let that really sink in: You can see the fear in the actors' eyes and the question of "...but what if it doesn't?" lingering in the air before they let themselves disregard the question and continue enjoying the moment. Had moments like this been infused throughout the entire first act, even amid the wink-and-a-nudge humor, the audience would be able to develop a connection with the characters, see them as real people, and the second act would not have felt like an entirely different show.
It's a shame, too, because the second act is really quite good. When the direction actually allows the characters to find sincere, earnest moments, the power of the script is well served. However, the manic first act that creates no character-to-audience connections nearly makes the audience immune to seriousness for the night and the second act left me feeling a bit stale (even when this sincerity does allow itself to come through).
I recently reviewed Marriott Theatre's current production of "Cabaret" and noted that, while there is nothing exceptional and not much spark, they are able to do service to the strong written show. I wish The Hypocrites had taken a note from the Marriot and seen that, sometimes, less is more. This is especially true when working with a such a brilliant script and score as "Into the Woods," that is full of so much on its own. Had they trusted the script enough to not try to outshine it with their own hijinks, something very special may have come out of this production.
It's quite clear how much work has been put into this production and, while many of the actors are extremely miscast (likely a result of the double-duty roles or an effort to do something "different"), the cast are talented and giving their all. I must applaud the production for their massive efforts and the creativity and theatricality that is abounding from the stage - I think "Into the Woods" is certainly a script that can be stylized and I look forward to seeing the different ways in which theatre companies over the years test this theory out. However, The Hypocrites seem to want to do it all and it results in an "Into the Woods" that feels more forced and self-aware than truthful and poignant.
The Hypocrites' "Into the Woods" is running through March 30th, 2014 at The Mercury (3745 N. Southport Ave. in Chicago). Tickets range from $22 - $59 and can be purchased at www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com, at the box office, or by calling (773) 325-1700.
Photo Credit: Evan Hanover