Stripped-down Sondheim

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday March 22, 2017
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Lisa Johanson and Stephanie Umoh play Rapunzel and the<br>Witch in Fiasco Theatre's reimagining of <i>Into the Woods</i><br> now at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus
Lisa Johanson and Stephanie Umoh play Rapunzel and the
Witch in Fiasco Theatre's reimagining of Into the Woods
now at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photo: Joan Marcus

Part of the less-is-more paradox comes from the notion that if you want people to take more action, you offer them less. It doesn't always work. Sometimes, less really is less. But in the Fiasco Theatre production of Into the Woods, the strategy works because it is imaginatively realized, playfully rendered, and fitting for material rooted in tales that always required imagination to take flight.

Before debuting Into the Woods in 2014, the New York-based company had used its ensemble approach mainly to strip down and reimagine Shakespeare, but its production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1987 musical has found broad enough appeal to warrant a touring production playing top-drawer best-of-Broadway series. Its current locale is the Golden Gate Theatre.

Because a cast of 10 plays 17 characters, frequently shifting roles often with only small changes in the basic costuming, attention needs to be ratcheted up. This is a boon especially for Sondheim's lyrics, which range from rat-a-tat cleverness to achingly poignant insights into the human condition. Lapine's winking mash-up of familiar fairytales takes on added spins as the usually literally rendered staging opens up into a seeming informality that has the cast grabbing at props and costumes you might find in an overstuffed attic. Laughs are added, and few if any are lost, in directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld's staging.

There are admittedly moments when some sorting is needed to connect an actor with the character that he or she might be playing at any given moment, but it's a problem that lessens as familiarity increases. Then there's the fact of the diminishing number of characters to be sorted as the second act proceeds. That's when the costs of what it took to achieve "happily ever after" begin to mount.

The tour of Into the Woods is the first Fiasco production in which members of the company who collaborated on the concept have been replaced by a new cast. It's still very much an ensemble show, and it's hard to single out individual performers among the versatile cast, who also occasionally accompany onstage pianist Evan Rees on an odd array of instruments.

But perhaps the most memorable performance comes in a role usually played by anything from a fiberglass replica to a plywood cutout of a cow. In this version, Darick Pead, with only a bell around his neck to signal his species, delightfully plays Milky White. The beloved pet of Jack (of beanstalk fame) no more than moos, but his bovine-dense reactions are priceless, especially when the neighborhood baker is accidentally introduced as the butcher.

At the start of the show, in a move added for this production, a performer tells the audience that while it might not seem like it will be so, there is a second act and we should be sure to return after intermission. I have never known that to be a problem with Into the Woods, but I do know people who have said they would have been satisfied without the grimming of Grimm.

That, of course, is the entire point of the show " that there are consequences in our quests for personal satisfaction, and our gains can result in someone else's losses. What defines family and community needs to be adjusted, and the overall humanizing effect of the Fiasco approach to the material arguably warms this message that has taken on a fresh relevance.

 

Into the Woods will run at the Golden Gate Theatre through April 2. Tickets are $60-$275. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.