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Into The Woods. Stephen Sondheim. Eric Schaeffer. Hilary Tham.

On January 19, 2007, the Dresser attended a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale-based musical Into the Woods. It is the first offering at the brand new theater complex of Virginia’s Signature Theatre. Signature principals having moved from a cramped, converted garage to a building made to their specifications and with multiple stages were personally greeting the attendees as they arrived. As with any new theater, a learning curve on how to best use an untested facility needs to be mastered. Upon leaving Signature’s new home, the Dresser had these Sondheim lyrics playing through her head:

''You have to grope,
but that's the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there's hope
of getting through the journey.''


From previous Signature productions, the Dresser knew the outstanding talent of many of the performers like Donna Migliaccio (Jack-in-the-Beanstalk’s mother) and was disappointed, particularly by the first act—the long “happily ever after” portion of this musical—because she could not satisfactory hear many of the singers.


Moreover, that vital energy necessary to put this show across was missing. With some irritation, the Dresser, who was sitting at the top of a riser, kept thinking throughout the first act that the players were losing their energy with all the stampede running from behind stage and that this running was incessantly shaking the risers and therefore agitating audience members, such as the Dresser.

Eric Schaeffer, Signature Theatre’s artistic director and director for this production, wants his performers mic-less and maybe that is not workable. However, something different happened in the short let’s-look-at-the-consequences-of-happily-ever act. The singers had more energy and the Dresser was moved to tears by the losses of the Baker (played by Daniel Cooney), Cinderella (Stephanie Waters), Little Red Riding Hood (Lauren Williams), and Jack-in-the-Beanstalk (Stephen Gregory Smith).


In a perverse and probably not at all intended manner, even the shaking risers of Act I was put into perspective when the wife of Jack’s giant makes her presence known by her unseen walking across the fairytale kingdom. The whole theater felt her awesome footsteps.


The Dresser loved the performance of Eleasha Gamble as Rapunzel’s witch. Once the Baker and his wife break the spell over the witch by delivering to her Jack’s cow Milky White, Red Riding Hood’s red cape, Cinderella’s high-heeled shoe, and corn silk from Jack and his mother’s garden, Ms. Gamble’s transformation from ugly hag to voluptuous beauty is wondrous.


Gamble artfully plays both roles equally well. The Dresser also tips her hat to Lauren Williams (Little Red Riding Hood) for the wonderfully quirky character she creates—a little girl who doesn’t let a wolf take her down. However, the Dresser adored the sexy performance of James Moye as the wolf. Moye also does an OK job of portraying Cinderellas's prince but he really stands out as Wolf.


Jon Kalbfleisch and his orchestra positioned to one side of Rapunzel’s tower chamber executed a sensitive concert that supported the singers without competing for attention. The Dresser feels happy for the musicians that they no longer have to fit into a tiny puzzle of space and be invisible.


Despite what Sondheim has said about the giant just being a giant and not standing for something else (you know, "rose is a rose is a rose"), during act II, the Dresser began to think that Mrs. Giant menacing the inhabitants of this fairytale world rippled out to the current world situation in a variety of ways.


In one scenario, Mrs. Giant is the United States avenging its gigantic loss: her husband killed by the boy Jack (3,000 people lost when our skyscraper World Trade Center was brought down by the small band of terrorists who hijacked two American planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers). Well, Jack wasn’t a terrorist, but just a scared and simple-minded boy. But he did steal from the Giants and he did chop down the beanstalk and kill Mr. Giant. To the Mrs., wasn't Jack a terrorist? Some of those menaced by Mrs. Giant wanted to sacrifice Jack so Mrs. Giant would be appeased and quit killing others in their kingdom. Finally, the group left decides to work together to kill Mrs. Giant. Of course, what the creators of Into the Woods are saying is that there are consequences for our actions and who lives happily ever after anyhow?

Another scenario that came to mind was what if the next giant killer were female? How about Hilary Clinton as our next president facing down all the large and menacing terrors confronting our country today? In Into the Woods, Little Red Riding, after her run-in with Mr. Wolf, started carrying a knife. She promptly volunteers to take care of Jack when he finds out his mother has died. Go, Little Red! What the Dresser hadn’t remembered from seeing and loving the 1994 Signature production of Into the Woods was how serious the issues are in the second portion of this work. Some how the bigger space of Signature’s new home opened up the Dresser’s imagination in all directions.

Because in the Dresser’s world, everything is seen through the lens of poetry, she leaves the discussion of Into the Woods with this view of cross-gender politics, heavy-footed walking, and luck:

Bo Wan

Bo Wan was a man.
He walked like a woman.
He was the heroine in all our operas.
He’d sing soprano and slink across
the stage, more graceful than any woman.

Bo Wan was a man.
He talked like a woman.
His fingers fluttered when he spoke
and his hips swayed like fan-tailed
fish in moving water.

The whole town knew
Bo Wan had a boyfriend.
Bo Wan bought lace and frilly
underwear though he wore a tie,
men’s suits and wing-tipped shoes.

Bo Wan’s lover left him
and he swore a mighty oath.
Mothers warned their girls who giggled
and shook their heads when Bo Wan came
and asked sweetly for a date.

Bo Wan didn’t give up.
He wanted a wife and he found her
in another town where he kept his hands
in his pockets and walked as heavy-footed
as any man with hair on his chest.

We asked his bride, hadn’t she noticed
Bo Wan was foxier than Miss Willow,
our town courtesan. “He never minced
on our dates, not like he does now.”

Bo Wan was a lucky man.
His bride had pride.
She showed us the door and said,
“He may not walk like a man,
but he makes me feel like a woman.”

Happiness has wings of illusion.
We don’t know if she caged it.
We only know she became a compulsive
gambler and spent all her days
and most nights in mahjong halls.

by Hilary Tham
from Men & Other Strange Myths

Photos by: Carol Pratt


Comments (2)

susan absher:

I enjoyed Ms. Alenier's review of Into the Woods. I'll reflect further upon her comments about the interpretation of the Giant family when I see this show in a few days. And, I really loved the Hilary Tham poem with which she ends the review.

Maxine Kern:

It's alot of fun to see things with the Dresser; even when one hasn't been there.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 23, 2007 7:40 PM.

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