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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Into the Depression

“Into the Woods” first sprouted up on Broadway in 1987, a deceptively simple musical weaving familiar fairy tales together with a new tale or two, playing off archetypes, and using the threat of a Cold War turning Hot to force its simplistic characters into making complex moral choices.

I may be making up the Cold War turned Hot part. I may be projecting my own childhood fears of nuclear annihilation and the era of AIDS—Reagan’s America—onto the musical. But that’s the nature of fairy tales, isn’t it? That’s why fairy tales endure for centuries. They’re able to absorb our anxieties, our fears. So I’m sticking with that interpretation: The selfishness and myopia of the characters in the first act mirror the selfishness and myopia of the Reagan years. In the second act, those selfish, myopic characters must face their ruined kingdom abandoned by their king, and work together to rebuild their lives.

So. First production of “Into the Woods.” The staging was decidedly storybook inspired. The costuming, the sets, even the blocking suggested a magical, idealized reality--a shining city on the hill, as Reagan would call it--where the characters were both aware of their place in a larger story, and completely unaware of their ability to control their places.

A Broadway revival a little over a decade later altered the original concept of ‘Into the Woods’ a bit. I didn’t see the revival. So I won’t comment on it except to say that the “Hambone” number with the newly-added Three Little Pigs was a mistake, and I’m glad it was cut from future productions.

I may be making up the “Hambone” part.

Then, in 2010, in Regent’s Park in London, a new production reinvented the show entirely. Rather than having a traditional storybook narrator and a storybook staging, the new production replaced the Narrator with a young boy who recently ran away from home.

The kid—also called Narrator, though Imagineer might be a more accurate character name—hides in the woods near his home. He pours out toys from his bookbag onto the ground and immediately uses the toys to craft the story of “Into the Woods.” A troll doll becomes Rapunzel, for instance.

And here’s why I don’t like the new version of “Into the Woods.”

In its original conception, the story was firmly set in the world of storybooks. There was a flatness to the set design that emphasized the storybook quality of the piece, there were princesses in elaborate, fluffy dresses, and peasants in simple, but no less elaborate rags. All of us have had the experience of these storybook fairy tales, both in presentation and in having them read to us by an adult Narrator.

Importantly, early in the second act, the Narrator is essentially disposed of by the characters. Like children asserting their independence, the characters rebel and attempt to control their own destiny (“You need an objective person to pass the story along,” the Narrator protests. “Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it,” the Witch responds before shoving the Narrator at the Giantess, who kills him).

Making the Narrator a child imagining the story using action figures and troll dolls, while sitting alone in the woods, narrows the universal appeal of the show. It’s suddenly not a show drawing from our own encounters with fairy tales and our own habit of projecting onto the stories any meaning we wish (hello, Reagan’s America!), but instead becomes a collection of interwoven stories shaped by our assumptions on one single child's psyche, the current doll-playing Narrator-boy hiding from his father, a lonely little boy who has just lost his mother—either to divorce or to death, I’m not clear which.

And of course, the play on the words "which" and "Witch" is made a bit more obvious during the performance of ‘The Last Midnight.’ In the current staging, the Witch steals the Baker’s son. She takes custody of the child. If the ‘which’ by which the kid lost his mom is through divorce, perhaps the Witch is the custody battle over him, and the feelings of helplessness a young kid must feel watching courts and lawyers decide his fate. If the ‘which’ by which the kid lost his mom is through death, perhaps the Witch represents the fatalistic realization that he may be snatched away at any moment.

I may be making all that up.

But I’m not making this up: By making the Narrator a Real Boy rather than an “objective observer,” the audiences’ relation to the show is changed dramatically.

There’s no storybook quality in “Into the Woods” anymore. It’s a mishmash of a child’s interpretation of pop-culture cues. The wolf, for instance, is no longer introduced as an anthropomorphic and anatomically-correct beast, but as a sort of rock-star wannabe in a fur coat. The Three Little Pigs make a brief appearance, dressed in pink tutus. The Witch, in her uglier aspect, appears as late-stage Brundlefly from Jeff Goldblum’s performance in ‘The Fly,' complete with a reliability on stilts to brace her weight. Princesses are dressed in sexy miniskirts.

The original staging of ‘Into the Woods’ had a depth of perspective. Most of the set revealed itself in horizontal levels, while the set of the current staging hits all at once, and is a vertically-leveled layer cake of metal stairs and twisting vines. Rather than building a story like a book—flat, where one must look ever deeper to see the whole—the current staging plops the whole thing down for the audience to take in at one time, and relies on the characters to dash up and down the levels, turning a literary convention into a visual inevitability.

Yes. And then there’s the actual performance.

But that’s another rant.

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