“Into the Woods”

Once more, into the thicket

Broadway Rose makes musical magic with the tragedy and song of Sondheim's "Into the Woods"

What if the prince who Cinderella married turned out to be a philanderer? What if Jack’s war on giants didn’t end after he came down the beanstalk? What if Rapunzel suffered from PTSD and couldn’t enjoy her happily ever after? Those are some of the seductively perverse questions explored in Stephen Sondheim’s justly legendary 1987 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, which has been brought to poignant, vibrant life in a new production by the Broadway Rose Theatre Company.

Into the Woods is a daunting play. It calls for a cast and crew able to make sense of its disparate narrative elements (twisted romance, morbid comedy, haunting tragedy) and get audiences through a few bland songs (“A Very Nice Prince,” “It Takes Two”) that lack the clarity and force of the play’s most iconic musical numbers (“Agony,” “You Are Not Alone”). Those challenges are managed seamlessly by director Jessica Wallenfels and her actors, who have journeyed into the maze of Sondheim’s music (and James Lapine’s book) and emerged with a production that is beautiful, freewheeling, and whole.

Erin Tamblyn in Broadway Rose’s Into the Woods. Photo: Liz Wade

Like all enduring works of art, Into the Woods is a vast canvas upon which multiple ideas have been projected. While the play can be taken simply as a cheeky-sad reboot of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, some viewers have deemed it a metaphor for the AIDS crisis—not a stretch, given that its second act revolves around an unstoppable force that kills indiscriminately (in one case, almost immediately after sex).

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Drama Watch: A clown’s tale

"Going Down in Flames" traces a great clown's fall. Plus: critical changes at The New Yorker, what's up on Oregon stages in June.

One of the things about Joan Mankin was, she was always a surprise: always in the moment, rarely the same thing twice, an improvisational spirit whose free-form antics could throw her fellow performers for a loop, delight her audiences, and send her shows spinning into another dimension. So when the sound of a train rumbling down the tracks behind The Headwaters Theatre during a performance of Going Down in Flames on Saturday night broke the action and prompted Joan Schirle, who was playing the late, great American clown Mankin, to break into an ad-lib wisecrack, it was like a side-splitting visitation from beyond: Queenie Moon, upending expectations and stealing the scene again. And the audience cracked up.

Jeff Desautels (left), Joan Schirle as Joan Mankin, and Michael O’Neill in Danny Mankin’s Going Down in Flames at The Headwaters.

Mankin, or Queenie Moon, as her famous clown persona was called, was a shining light of the West Coast new vaudeville/agitprop theater scene that thrived from the 1960s forward, employing old-fashioned theatrical styles for new and often culturally subversive purposes. She worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the physical-theater stalwarts the Dell’Arte Players, as well as a lot of mainstream companies. I remember her best, and most fondly, as a star of the Pickle Family Circus, the wonderful San Francisco-based acrobatic and clowning company whose traveling shows I would seek out whenever they were in rational range, from Grant Park in Northeast Portland to the Southwest Oregon timber town of Coquille.

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INTO THE WOODS in search of happy endings

At OSF, the complex Lapine-Sondheim musical "Into the Woods" gives our fairy tales an adult twist

By HAILEY BACHRACH

Shakespeare loved to send characters into the forest. The most obvious examples are As You Like It, where journeys into the forest of Arden result in dramatic transformations of heart, mind, and even gender; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the forest leads to a night of love and chaos that helps set the befuddled lovers right. But think also of the climaxes of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline, or even the island forest of The Tempest.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is producing two of these plays this year (Two Gentlemen and The Tempest), and they are also producing what proves to be a fitting contemporary counterpoint: James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

In OSF's "Into the Woods" Miriam A. Laube tugs  on Royer Bockus's golden hair/Photo  T. Charles Erickson

In OSF’s “Into the Woods” Miriam A. Laube tugs on Royer Bockus’s golden hair/Photo T. Charles Erickson

Into the Woods is an amalgamation and adaptation of Western European fairy tales, but it shares Shakespeare’s understanding of the metaphorical import of the woods. The woods are Elsewhere, a place free of society and its rules and thus a place where something like a truer self can, perhaps, emerge…for good or bad. Amanda Dehnert’s production visualizes this journey by starting the actors out in modern dress with music stands, then sending them deeper and deeper into fairy tale costumes, props, and magic tricks as they move farther and farther into the woods. At the end of his plays, Shakespeare sends his characters out of the woods to resume their normal lives; Sondheim and Lapine’s characters learn that you are never really out.

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