When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthian 13:11
Relating the Old Testament to Stephen Sondheim is unusual, but these are unusual times when the important things in life find unexpected moorings. The notion of childhood giving way to maturity emerges wondrously in Hudson Valley Shakespeare Company’s magical, playful and poignant production of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” that opened Saturday night under skies of gathering summer storms.
The performance tent’s open backdrop of a Hudson River vista on the historic Boscobel Estate is perfect outdoor, pastoral playground for the fractured retelling - introduced Once Upon A Time, children’s storybook style, by the Narrator - of children’s fairytales: Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. There is, too, a Baker and His Wife, for whom the Witch, mother of Rapunzel, promises to break the spell of childlessness if they find four special items. Thus begins the characters’ journeys into the woods in search of their Happily Ever Afters.
The conception design, under the unified vision of director Jenn Thompson, springs from the things of childhood - toys. The cast of fourteen, most performing in HVSF summer repertoire, pull from toy chests plaything props (wittily curated by designer Joshua Yocum): Frisbees are gold coins; a pair of joke store, slinky-socketed eyeglasses represent the Prince's blindness; a gilded 70s boombox replaces the golden harp; a hula-hoop frames Cinderella's princess throne.
The mis-en-scene is children’s theatre. The carriage bearing Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsister are four players twirling green umbrellas as wheels to the chassis. The Big Bad Wolf’s attack on Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother gets staged as a backyard puppet show with stuffed animals as puppets, the cast sitting cross-legged like little kids clutching boxes of popcorn. The Prince brothers gallop into scenes from across the Boscobel lawn on broomstick toy horses.
Costumes (by Sara Jean Tosetti) are full of juvenile whimsy. Jack’s cow, Milky White, is a ragtag cluster of decorated plastic milk jugs for head and hinds held by an ensemble member dressed in white housepainter cap and coveralls. The Stepdaughter's skirts are cheap, pink crinoline, like the tutus little girls wear at ballet class. Little Red Riding Hood sports a red, shiny polyester baseball jacket, the kind a youthful Jackson 5 would have worn.
Toys and childhood get put away in Act 2, when Happily Ever Afters aren’t good enough. Baker’s Wife and the rest are unprepared for adult life - observes the Narrator (Jason O’Connell) “these people are ill-equipped to make choices” - especially when the giantess revenges for Jake killing her giant husband. The Witch (Leenya Rideout) admonishes, “people are dying all around you”. A small directorial touch speaks volumes: a tiny toy troll is tied to the pram Rapunzel wheels-in with her infant twins; when the young mother and infants are killed by the giantess, the Witch, the babies’ grandmother, returns from the scene of revenge tiny toy in hand. It’s time to grow up, get real, face the facts.
The repertory cast is uniformly very good, but special notice is due: a gutsy Britney Simpson as the conflicted Baker’s Wife; the boyish Brandon Dial as naïve Jack; Kayla Coleman as a wise-ass, tom-boyish Little Red Riding Hood; and, inimitable HVSF veteran, Nance Williamson, as both Jack’s ballsy mother and Cinderella’s brassy Stepmother. Rhett Guter is a triple treat as Wolf, Cinderella’s Prince and one of the Stepsisters. Both Stepsisters are played by men (the other by Luis Quintero, who also plays Rapunzel’s Prince), which adds to the silly merriment of Act 1. Mr. Guter and Mr. Quintero’s on-stage, split-second transformation from bravado Princes to girly Stepsisters is delightful, ingeniously facilitated by the crinoline skirts wrapping up and around to become sashes on royal jackets. The princes’ duet, “Agony”, often played as dueling machismos, gets played here, appropriately, as immature, bragging teenage bros.
It’s always interesting with productions of “Into the Woods” to see which character gets the most narrative oomph. At HVFS it is Cinderella played by a petite, beguiling Laura Darrell. Not only is her vocal quality the best in the cast, but also her Cinderella has a knowing countenance that quietly measures the immaturity and folly – including her own – all around her. Darrell’s “On the Steps of the Palace” is perfect.
Besides performing triple roles, Mr. Guter also choreographs. Most appealing is his soft-shoe styled dance for “Hello Little Girl”, the Wolf’s duet with Little Red Riding Hood, that pivots off playfulness, rather than the erotic. Sondheim’s score is ravishing, as usual. Music director Amanda Morton’s arrangements are unadorned, cleanly played by her on keyboard, accompanied by two strings and percussion Bravo to sound designer Ken Travis for his excellent work - lyrics and music are matched in clarity - especially as “Into the Woods” is the first musical the HVSF has produced.
Mother Nature had an unscripted role in the opening night performance. Gathering storms held off for Act 1 but moved in closer during Act 2 as the story turned not so happily ever after. Lightning flashes answered staged lighting effects. Rumbling thunder echoed the sound effects of crashing beanstalk and stomping giant feet. Rain downpoured at the finale. Holding black umbrellas, the ensemble emerged from the dark lawn singing “Children Will Listen”. It was as if I was hearing “careful the tale you tell, that is the spell” for the very first time, almost like a kid again.
INTO THE WOODS through September 8 at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival on Boscobel House and Gardens, Garrison, NY
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