Writers Theatre Presents INTO THE WOODS Review – potent wishes and sweeping circularity, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED pick for Chicago Bestplay, through September 29
For its production of INTO THE WOODS, Writers Theatre has added extra seating to its three-quarters thrust. Now the audience envelops the stage from all four sides. In the middle of the added sections, there is a platform with a piano and a massive tree towering over it. The piano is very real; Charlotte Rivard-Hoster both plays and conducts the other musicians from that perch. The tree, composed of stylized instruments and tools, is a construct of the imagination.
Stephen Sondheim’s musical, riffing on traditional fairy tales, is all about what humans can build, here on earth and in our minds. Directed by Gary Griffin and designed by Scott Davis, this revival of INTO THE WOODS brings a sweeping circularity to the tale of a baker and his wife who wish “more than anything” to have a child. Intersecting with familiar faces from Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, the Baker and the Baker’s Wife venture into the dark, unpredictable woods to pursue this goal.
Wishes go round and round at Writers Theatre
Fundamental wishes – for children, for wealth, for freedom, for love – express themselves in the magical ways of fairy tales. The characters’ specific quests for happiness involve witches’ spells and giants in the sky, golden eggs and talking spirits. Round and round these characters go, picking up energy with each perambulation. They also pick up complications, some of their own doing and others the result of fate.
As delicate forest greenery made of yarn hangs high above the playing area, INTO THE WOODS’ ensemble performs with a simplicity that allows the richness of Sondheim’s score and James Lapine’s book to emerge. In this reviewer’s estimation, the actors balance the script’s philosophical depth with its light humor. Without a single line of dialogue, Mary Poole, as Jack’s old cow Milky White, expresses a vast range of emotions. Plodding along hilariously on a wooden walker with a fanny-pack udder strapped to the front, she reminds us that the elderly are just as full of feeling as the younger folks around them.
INTO THE WOODS’ multiple themes
Sondheim and Lapine weave multiple critical themes into their story and this production – narrated by Writers Theatre Artistic Director Michael Halberstam -- realizes them beautifully. Michael Mahler and Brianna Borger as the Baker and Baker’s Wife are a warring, loving, evolving couple from start to finish. Ximone Rose’s Cinderella is nobody’s fool and Ryan McBride as her self-absorbed Prince eventually acquires a scrap of self-knowledge. For this viewer, Bethany Thomas as the Witch and Lucy Godinez as Little Red push a bit too hard in their respective roles. Nonetheless, the cast functions as a satisfying unit.
With the audience and actors confronting each other on all sides, the show’s central message hits hard. Intense desires may fuel our existence but when we satisfy those desires, what comes next? Does making a potent wish come true also make us happy? Act I gives us separate stories that intersect and connect with each other. Act II transforms these individual quests into a shared response to danger and loss, underscoring Sondheim’s lyrical statement, “no one is alone.” When the wishes of our imagination meet the reality of our actual lives, we can choose whether or not to add meaning to our own jagged journeys.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Nicole Armold, Ben Barker, Alex Benoit, Brianna Borger, William Brown, McKinley Carter, Matt Edmonds, Lucy Godínez, Michael Halberstam, Kelli Harrington, Molly Hernández, Cecilia Iole, Michael Mahler, Ryan McBride, Mary Poole, Harriet Nzinga Plumpp, Ximone Rose, Bethany Thomas and Jonathan Weir
Gary Griffin (director), Scott Davis (scenic designer), Mara Blumenfeld (costume designer), Lee Fiskness (lighting designer), Christopher M. LaPorte (sound designer), Seph Mozes (dramaturg), Nick Moran (CFM Contractor), Sophiyaa Nayaar (assistant director), Sasha Smith (intimacy & fight director), Geoff Button (casting director), Binder Casting (casting consultant), and Katie Klemme (production stage manager).
Now through September 29
Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:30 PM
Saturdays at 3:00 & 7:30 PM
Sundays at 2:00 & 6:00 PM
315 Tudor Court
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.