BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS, Menier Chocolate Factory, 12 July 2016

BWW Review: INTO THE WOODS, Menier Chocolate Factory, 12 July 2016

Anyone who ever played 'shop' as a child, trading real or imaginary objects over a table, will experience a thrill of recognition at Fiasco Theater's stripped-back take on Sondheim and James Lapine's ode to and deconstruction of storytelling. That's what we get for the swiftly evoked bakery, and there's a dressmaker's dummy standing in for a tree, a feather duster and Christmas tree ornament for a golden egg-laying hen, a ladder for a mighty tower, a wooden crate for a throne, shadow play during the action sequences, and flapping pieces of paper as the ever-helpful birds.

The company is similarly minimalist, with 10 actor-musicians covering all the roles (and Ben Steinfeld and Noah Brody co-directing), plus setting scenes and contributing to the seemingly ad-hoc band; musical director Evan Rees provides support on an upright piano and cameos as a cow. Whitney Locher dresses them in what might be the product of rummaging through a knitwear-heavy dressing-up box, with strong identifiers: the Baker's Wife's apron and shawl, the Witch's Phantom-like mask, Jack's woolly hat. The Stepsisters are two blokes behind a curtain rail, the latter whisked away as they change character mid-scene.

The aim of this revision, which began at Princeton's McCarter Theater and subsequently played New York's Roundabout Theatre, is to focus our attention on the material - the intricate lyrics, cleverly tangled tales, and familiar dilemmas. Without blockbuster or campy production values, the humanity rings out, along with the characters' beautiful, imperfect fumbling towards a better life.

There are moments when the opposite occurs and the knowing cleverness of the staging takes over, and Derek McLane's forest of ropes and piano fragments remains a striking but detached backdrop. Yet this is still a delightful showcase of theatrical inventiveness, rooted in youthful play. That's key to a work so sensitive to childhood development, and the vital responsibility that parents and storytellers both have in moulding minds, imparting wisdom and granting us freedom to explore.

The absurdity of events is wryly acknowledged, whether attaching air quotes to the catch-all "baking accident" explanation, dismissing the riddling stranger, or pointing out that yes, talking to birds is a bit weird. These are ordinary people in extraordinary but recognisable situations: the Baker and his Wife deal with the neighbour from hell; the Witch's pride over Rapunzel's singing verges on manic stage mother; and there are multiple variations on navigating the parent/child relationship.

It's a strong ensemble effort, emphasising the work's theme of collective rather than self-interest, but with detailed individual performances. Vanessa Reseland's Witch is unusually grounded, both before and after her vampy makeover, very much the ruthless voice of reason; Jessie Austrian's Baker's Wife is a practical improviser undone by celebrity worship; and Emily Young doubles effectively as Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel, both thrust from sheltered innocence into hardening experience.

Claire Karpen's Cinderella longs to take a leap of faith, while Patrick Mulryan's Jack is a big-hearted, soft-headed stargazer. He's upstaged, as is everyone, by Andy Grotelueschen's wonderfully human cow, whether sighing over an empty milk bottle, trudging away with a tiny suitcase or snuffling into a hankie.

All share narrator duties, merging the stories further and emphasising their parallels: the predatory males, absentee fathers (Cinderella's distant dad is represented by an oil painting), and tendency to view things from one selfish perspective. That, of course, hits home right now, as does references to childlessness and unreliable leadership.

If not the most vocally remarkable or musically rich version of this much-performed show - the use of everything from bassoon and banjo to a bucket is impressive, but inevitably the score is less textured - it is one that demands and rewards audience engagement. We are asked to imagine a world beyond ours right from the start, when Austrian explains that her baby bump is not an ironic character choice, but a real-life pregnancy. The wish to live in the between, to experience magic and adventure while keeping a grasp on home and identity, is superbly conveyed, as is the key message: it matters not just what stories we tell, but how we tell them. Enchanting and achingly relatable.

Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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