Leah Yorkston

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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God speaks. You listen.

The Lord God Almighty, Creator of the Universe, lays it all on the line in the celestial comedy "An Act of God." Listen up, or be left behind.

Let it be known that the Lord God Almighty, Creator of the Universe, Incorporeal Presence Sometimes Taking on the Form of Flesh, is now appearing several nights a week and Sunday afternoons in Portland, Oregon, at Triangle Productions, whose home on Northeast Sandy Boulevard is fortuitously known as The Sanctuary.

His Awesome Holiness has taken the form of a local actor of some repute named Norman Wilson, and is playing Himself in a little comedy called An Act of God, which is purportedly written by a television funnyman named David Javerbaum, multiple winner of and nominee for Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and/or producer for Jon Stewart and David Letterman and others, but if you want to know The Truth the monologue seems to be coming Straight From the Mouth Of, if you know what I mean. No burning bushes or any of that old-style cosmic show-biz stuff. Just some jokey insider talk-show chat and the occasional reverberating roar when something gets under His temporal skin.

God on His couch, spreading the word. Triangle Productions photo

A few things are on The Divine One’s Mind, perhaps most pressingly the rule of law as interpreted by the overly adoring and literalist masses. “Yea, I have grown weary of the Ten Commandments,” He pronounces. “In the same way Don McLean has become weary of American Pie.” A hit like that defines and typecasts you: You can’t get away from it. G-d lets the audience in on a few puckish stretchings of the truth in the telling of original stories (the actual quote, it turns out, was “And Adam and Steve were naked and knew no shame”) and splits a Celestial Gut that anyone still takes that two-by-two thing seriously: He means, how many animals are there, and how much room was on that ark? And He announces a new Big Ten, keeping a couple of the old ones but in the main tossing the original list into the Heavenly trash bin. Among the newbies: Thou shalt not tell others when to fornicate, Thou shalt not kill in My name, Thou shalt separate Me and state. All very sensible, it seems, but who knows if these ones might take hold, or if the old ones might not hang around embarrassingly like Confederate Hero statues in Southern town squares, ruthlessly and rigorously defended by unbending believers in the Old Faith?

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