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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Giants Can Be Good in Into The Woods & Artist and Subject Fight For Control of the Narrative in Shooting Celebrities

Also, points of view and journalistic integrity clash in Redaction.

This week I saw three plays where what seems like the truth might be a subjective point of view.

**Into The Woods Spoiler**Into The Woods Spoiler**Into The Woods Spoiler**

Stick around long enough and attend musicals frequently enough and you're apt to see a heck of a lot of productions of Into The Woods.

Lear deBessonet's splendid City Center Encores! concert mounting of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's grownup take on popular fairy tale characters, which ends its run today, is the seventh I've seen since catching the original in previews: two on Broadway, two Off-Broadway and two done by community theatres.

But no matter how differently the material is staged or interpreted, there's one thing every performance I've seen has in common.

**And this is your last chance to stop reading before the spoiler...**

Nobody ever applauds when the giant is killed.

No matter how creatively or elaborately it's done, the killing of the giant, whenever I've seen Into The Woods, has always been followed by a stark, discomforting silence.

And that tells me that a major message of the show has been absorbed. The people you may consider to be "the bad guys" may have good reasons to believe you're "the bad guys" and sometimes what's right and what's wrong is subjective. As the song we hear minutes before the story's climax says, "Witches can be right / Giants can be good... No one is alone."

The relationship between the giant who appears (in voice and stage design only) in the second act and the fairly tale characters who kill her is very cleverly written. Though she is unmistakably angry, the giant is never scripted to make any threats to harm anyone. She is a grieving widow who has only arrived to find the young boy Jack, who has repeatedly stolen from her and then murdered her husband as he tried to stop him.

When she says she wants to bring the boy to justice, the others take that as meaning she wants to kill him, but how do we know she doesn't intend to take him to a giant criminal court to stand trial? We don't.

It's mentioned that the giant is nearsighted, so she is likely unaware of the destruction she's doing and the people she's killing just by walking around.

One might point out that in Jack's first act song, "Giants In The Sky", he claims the giant's husband intended to eat him, but the boy can't very well claim self-defense when he returns to the giants' home repeatedly to steal from them and kills the husband to avoid being caught in an act of thievery.

Little Red, who apparently has not been carefully taught to think giants are bad, feels guilt when she and the others finalize their plans to kill the giant for the good of their community. Meanwhile, after Jack finds out that the Steward inadvertently killed his mother while taking an impulsive action he felt was for the good of their community, the Baker calms the boy's vengeful thoughts with words of reason and mercy. Does the Steward deserve compassion while the giant does not? Just because he's one of them?

The scene is graced with some of the most poignant lyrics in musical theatre...

Someone is on your side,

Someone else is not.

While we're seeing our side

Maybe we forgot

They are not alone.

No one is alone.

...and then the giant is killed.

the american vicarious (spelled in all lower case) has quickly earned a place on my list of must-see theatre companies...

Following their extraordinarily fascinating Debate: Baldwin vs Buckley, a recreation of the televised 1965 debate on race relations between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley that I raved about in a previous column, they've now whipped up a wildly off-beat, thought-provoking riff on the way we're influenced to see history, Shooting Celebrities.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Giants Can Be Good in Into The Woods & Artist and Subject Fight For Control of the Narrative in Shooting Celebrities
Gene Gillette (on screen) and Julia Watt
(Photo: Christopher McElroen)

History tells us that contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln regarded the 1860 portrait of the emerging presidential candidate taken by photographer Matthew Brady on the day of his speech at New York's Cooper Union was what won him the election.

In Shooting Celebrities, playwright John Ransom Phillips has Mary Todd Lincoln (Julia Watt, balancing demureness when require and firmness when necessary), deemed mad by the press and public at large after the deaths of her husband and young son, visiting Brady's studio, desiring a portrait that will reveal her in a more truthful and sympathetic light. The photographer has other ideas in mind and the struggle between artist and subject for control of the narrative begins.

Brady (played with strutting abandon by Gene Gillette) became America's first celebrity photographer after the release of his photos from Civil War battlefields; images where he repositioned dead bodies, scenery and equipment for the most striking effects. Director Christopher McElroen's vibrant and energetic staging has an audience of twenty (tickets $35) seated in a semicircle around scenic designer Neal Wilkinson's revolving stage, surrounded by video screens where designer Eamonn Farrell projects some of Brady's most prominent portraits, more contemporary visuals and unusually accented photos of the Lincoln family.

I'm not going to said I got all the abstract imagery of the 80-minute piece, which opens with a debate between a chair and a camera, but I was always edge-of-my-seat intrigued.

As a theatre columnist, and as a playgoer in general, I always feel like I need to be extra alert of any points of view I may harbor...

...when seeing a play like David Z. Gutierrez's journalism drama, Retraction, which was presented at Theatre Row as part of CreateTheater's New Works Festival, which concludes today.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Giants Can Be Good in Into The Woods & Artist and Subject Fight For Control of the Narrative in Shooting Celebrities
Roya Shanks and Aurora O'Greenfield
(Photo: Emily Hewitt)

Knowing in advance that it was a work of fiction adapted from a high-profile investigative report of a college campus rape -- an article I have faint memory of -- I found myself immediately checking the program to see if the male-written play was directed by a woman (yes, Jen Wineman), indicating a gender-share of the creative lens.

Like many well-done plays regarding differences in viewpoints when it comes to issues involving sex, race and other matters involving diverse groups of people, this is a play that I think will invoke many legitimate reactions based on each audience member's individual experiences.

Roya Shanks did excellent work playing nationally known journalist Wendy Cohen Dennison, the narrator of the plot-driven piece that turns out to be a bit of a mystery.

Dennison built her reputation on articles that revealed sexist and unfair treatment of women making rape accusations and she states that her next goal is to break open the secrecy of colleges and universities trying to protect their reputations by covering up on-campus rape occurrences.

She finds a case that suits her needs, believes the young woman accusing rape to be credible and, after numerous interviews with witnesses, writes the kind of hard-hitting, attention-grabbing article her editor was hoping for.

But then a young male newspaper reporter -- one who states that he wants to prove himself deserving of the position many think he got through nepotism -- arrives on campus and we see him getting conflicting stories from people Dennison interviewed. So are we now seeing these witnesses accurately, or are we now seeing them as a different reporter with a stated agenda sees them?

The playwright has it firmly stated twice that it's very rare for rape accusers to be lying, but it's the young woman's credibility that comes into question; meaning that there may be factors, outside of lying, that make her testimony untrustworthy. Witnesses who spoke with Dennison claim they were misquoted and mischaracterized and we see them describing and acting out different versions of the truth depending on whose eyes we're seeing them through. Aurora O'Greenfield was very convincing as the young accuser, alternating between being believable and questionable as a victim.

But what makes the play work so well is that the main focus is not on the case itself, but on the journalistic integrity of those reporting on it, and whether or not they can recognize when and if their objectivity is compromised by any points of view they may harbor.

Curtain Line...

"Tonstant Weader fwowed up." - Dorothy Parker's review of A.A. Milne's The House At Pooh Corner and my review of how the classic period lobby of The Algonquin Hotel has been gutted out and completely redesigned.

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