When Stephen Sondheim’s fractured fairy tale “Into the Woods” debuted in 1986, a lot of ink was spilled by writers trying figure out who or what the offstage, seemingly omnipresent “giant” character was. Some wrote the storybook menace known for trampling villages was a metaphor for AIDs. Some said war. Others famine. Others indifference.
The thing is, that giant could have been, and could be, just about anything that threatens on a global scale. That’s not a copout. At Writers Theatre, it’s a warning.
At least, that’s how it feels in director Gary Griffin’s astute staging of “Into the Woods.” The musical (book by James Lapine, music and lyrics by Sondheim) is so impeccably fine that really all Griffin had to do was cast capably and get out of the material’s way. (That’s how easy the director makes it look anyway.) “Into the Woods” is as effortless as listening to a lullaby.
It is also marvelously subversive.
Like the most worthy musicals, “Into the Woods” offers layer upon layer upon layer of storytelling. If you think it’s just about fairy-tale characters, you also probably think “Aesop’s Fables” are just about animals.
“Into the Woods” lures you in with the familiar stories of Little Red Riding Hood (Lucy Godinez), Cinderella (Ximone Rose), Rapunzel (Cecilia Iole), their Princes (Ryan McBride and Alex Benoit), Jack (Ben Barker), his always-weary mother (McKinley Carter) and, of course, that beanstalk. Griffin’s ensemble humanizes these archetypes so much that you feel you know them — even the annoying gray-haired mysterious man who seems more will-o-the-wisp than human (William Brown).
Everyone gets what they wished for, but as it turns out — as in life — keeping the thing you wished for is the hard part.
“Into the Woods” breaks nicely in two. In the first act, all and sundry head into the woods in search of their hearts’ desires. The baker and his wife seek a child, Cinderella seeks solace from her dead mother. Jack commiserates with the beloved cow Milky White (an adorable Mary Poole) he is meant to sell. The princes swagger through to sing “Agony,” one of the most bro-ish duets in all the kingdom (well done, McBride and Benoit, indeed!). The narrator (Michael Halberstam) flitters about with bird puppets, filling in expositional gaps.
At the center of this carousel of characters is Bethany Thomas as The Witch. Thomas is magnificent. There’s a trace of the primal Eve — maybe Lilith is more apt — about her, whether it’s manifesting as a Halloween store costume hag or purple-cloaked royalty. “The Last Midnight” flares like heat lightning. “Children Will Listen” has the tone of a last plea. And, despite her ferocity, you realize the Witch isn’t that that different from most parents.
On the other end of the (fairy-tale) age spectrum is Godinez’s Little Red Riding Hood, a child who learns that her voracious appetite does not stop with bread and sweet rolls. Watching Little Red evolve from a child for whom sticky buns are the height of pleasure to the discovery of other pleasures is hilarious and not a little sad.
No small credit also goes to conductor/pianist Charlotte Rivard-Hoster’s tiny band (Brandon Podjasek on percussion, Mike Matlock on woodwinds), which sounds more like an orchestra than a trio.
Scott Davis’ set design, though, is puzzlement. In lieu of woods or something woodlike, we have what appear to be massive strands of green Silly String and oversized yarn looping from above. Rivard-Hoster plays her piano at the bottom of what appears to be piles of discarded metal scaffolding and stray piano keyboards. When the folktale’s supernatural powers are close at hand, the debris tower groans and vibrates like an old airplane’s rusting hulk breaking down in the desert.
Still, it looks for all the world like an art installation, which the cast is having to work around, rather than an integral piece of the production.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.