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Sennett: A review of 'Into the Woods'

April 18, 2019

 

UT’s Department of Theatre and Film is currently running its final show of the season. Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical “Into the Woods” has one more weekend at the Center for Performing Arts before the fall hauls in a new selection of drama for those of us not graduating in May.

 

“Into the Woods” has always been an ensemble piece. Rather than relying on a central protagonist,  dozens of characters retell classic fables, such as Rapunzel and Cinderella, and layer their stories together into one continuum. It’s a communal story that both distorts and celebrates old standards in an effort to generate a fresh narrative.

 

And as communal as this play attempts to be, one character always stands out as the most interesting. Surprise, surprise, it’s the Witch. Yes, nearly two decades before “Wicked” twisted our favorite story about a little girl from Kansas, Sondheim made us all realize that witches can offer more angst, tragedy, and wit than most traditional heroes.

 

As an ensemble piece, the players involved in bringing UT’s version of the 1986 musical to life render a lot of chemistry together. But unlike most productions I’ve seen, the Witch took something of a backseat at UT. Jennifer Nagy Lake, who portrays the Witch, by no means brings the show down—she’s a very talented actress. She’s particularly good at creating small gestures on her face that demonstrated a subtle interpretation of the character.

 

But I must say, this subtlety probably would have come across much more effectively on film than in live theatre. For my money, the Witch cannot be over-the-top enough, especially in her opening vegetable rap song—a fan favorite from the show.

 

On the other hand, most of the performances in UT’s “Into the Woods” hold nothing back. Director Edmund Lingan (“The Tempest,” “Little Shop of Horrors”) typically favors an exaggerated acting style. And while not all plays call for over-the-top performances—most comedy works best when under-played—Lingan’s punchy direction really complements Sondheim’s rapid-fire song lyrics.

 

Austin Rambo’s portrayal of the Narrator is particularly funny and original. For a role usually filled by a veteran actor, Rambo’s youthfulness and improvisational method gives this production of “Into the Woods” excitement and life. Theatre of the moment at its most playful.

 

At first glance, UT neglects to offer anything original about the visual presentation of the beloved musical. Daniel Thobias’s set design doesn’t aim to innovate. A large crescent moon hangs behind a veil of  moss and twisted tree limbs—a motif nearly every production of “Into the Woods” seems to implement.

 

And yet, this particular production showcases a simplicity that welcomes audiences into the intimate thrust-style theatre while still provoking enough mystery to keep them invested in the fairytale.

 

Most importantly, the set pleases the eye without getting in the way of the performances. Past musicals here at UT, such as 2016’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” tend to cram too many scenic ideas into the small theatre space. And while these ideas may work in a larger, proscenium-style theatre, UT’s limited real estate can make big musical productions feel clunky, like a bull in a China shop.

 

Thankfully, that isn’t the case at all here. On the contrary, “Into the Woods” works remarkably well on a thrust stage, allowing the audience to feel as if they too journey deep into the wild, beyond the thorny trees and into a space of imaginative discovery.

 

Don’t get me wrong, the set by no means defines perfection. While Thobias built a monolithic tower for Rapunzel (Paige Chapman), she does not sing from its window. Instead, Chapman uses the catwalk adjacent to the tower instead—a mildly distracting error that can be easily overlooked nonetheless.

 

With most of the interesting aspects of the set on the sidelines, the majority of the stage makes way for the actors to perform without too many moving pieces. And this is really important for a Sondheim play, especially one that offers so many examples of his famous tongue-twisters and clever word play.

 

This freedom of performance really does justice to the complexity of Sondheim’s music. When fairytales collide, we realize that simple morals don’t really workout the way we like to think. What happens after the happily ever after? Well, in “Into the Woods” the answer is complicated and honest.

 

As some of us prepare to graduate in May, “Into the Woods” feels like an appropriate warning not to trust dull and cliché words of advice. Life post-school, just like life post-happily ever after, can never be defined. We enter the woods alone. Trying to understand the imposed wisdom of fairytales is hardly helpful, if not dangerous. Instead, let’s simply focus on the humor, irony, and zaniness these stories bring to us, and enjoy.

 

I was delighted to be entertained by one final show here at UT. Do yourself an end-of-the-semester favor, and see it this weekend before it’s gone.

 

Evan Sennett is a fourth-year student double majoring in film and English with a concentration in literature. 

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