Storytelling is the heart of theater.  In their warmly-received yet mix-reviewed work from 1987, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) tackled storytelling at its classical core.  Their Into The Woods presented fairy tales from the Grimm Brothers accented with perspectives from Sigmund Freud and Bruno Bettelheim.  The work was complex — and combined with the original Broadway production’s overblown whimsy and post-modern preciousness – the result was a mixed bag of excess and confusion.  It seemed ironic to me that for a work whose featured anthem song was titled “Children Will Listen,” the overworked production made it hard to listen to the play’s message without feeling exhausted and preached to.  But that was then.

Almost thirty years later and back at San Diego’s The Old Globe, where the work originated prior to its initial Broadway run in 1986, Into the Woods has been reworked in a spare and inventive revival by the innovative talents of Fiasco Theater, an ensemble theatre company created by graduates of the Brown University M.F.A. Acting Program.

Fiasco Theater specializes in undressing icons in theatre’s revered canon, and their past presentations of reworked classics have garnered glowing reviews.  [Cymbeline, Measure For Measure, and Twelfth Night.]  Into The Woods is their first endeavor in tacking a modern classic.  From the perspective of this reviewer, it is a masterwork.   [At the outset, let me tackle the issue of the company’s odd name.  It seems that the term originated as a description of commedia dell’arte performances that went horribly and hilariously wrong.  In picking the name for their company, Fiasco Theater believes that “only when artists are brave enough to risk a fiasco do they allow the possibility of creating something special,” and the name serves as a daily reminder to brave the huge risks inherent in discovering huge rewards.]

In their press materials, Fiasco Theater states “Sometimes you can’t perceive the true beauty of something until you’ve seen it naked.”  For Into The Woods, Fiasco deconstructs the work, digging deep into the material and rediscovering its emotional center.  The new production at The Old Globe feels fresh, exciting and different.  By keeping it simple, the complexity of the work is revealed.  Like a brilliant diamond under the hands of a skilled cutter, Fiasco brings out Sondheim’s clearest cut, color and clarity of lyrical wordplay.  And at the heart of the production stands the necessity to tell a story.  The necessity for storytelling as a means to understand, to create, to learn, and to pass on.

Most of the characters of our “once upon a time” are here.  Rapunzel is here, as is Jack and his beanstalk.  Cinderella and her stepsisters, along with Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, are here too.   There’s even the obligatory wicked witch.  But now they are treated as contemporary types — Jungian archetypes if you will — working their way from an embryonic enchanted forest to a state of matured disenchantment.   So, as these classic childhood icons ricochet through the woods in pursuit of their own needs and wants, their deepest yearnings are revealed.  And the depths they will take to reach these wants are questioned, tested, and explored.

In the end, Into The Woods has always been about how the lessons of the childhood fairy tales we all heard as children reverberate within us in our adult lives.   Under the lens of Sondheim and Lapine, these cautionary tales become a sort of roadmap of what lies ahead, and of the choices we make in our adulthood.  Some good, some not so good.  Lessons learned and not learned.  Life is both ordinary and astonishing; both flawed and perfect.  Life is messy.  Mistakes abound.  And as Mr. Sondheim reminds us, we must honor our mistakes.  For people who look and listen —  as Mr. Sondheim so affectingly compels us to do – the world is beautiful indeed when we honor these mistakes.
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Unquestioningly, the underlying material is a masterwork.  Complex.  Provocative.  Timeless.  Under the hands of Fiasco Theater, Into The Woods transforms into the masterpiece that it is.  I loved the complexity of the scaled-down presentation, where full orchestra, standard casting, and even the hyper-skilled singing voices of traditional musical theater are thrown out the window.

In lieu of the traditional orchestral accompaniment, this production presents an old-fashioned upright piano played onstage by Matt Castle, who also served as the production’s musical director and drafted the pared down orchestrations.  As a touch of whimsy, cast members enhance the work musically by picking up scattered musical instruments like French horn, guitar, cello and other woodwinds on lyrical cues.

Instead of the usual cast of 18 players, Fiasco presents actors in multiple roles, with a number of deliciously wild doubling.  And the cow, Milky White, is now anthropomorphized and effectively played by Andy Grotelueschen.   Genius.

When pages of stray sheet music turn into magical birds, you know you are witnessing the true essence of magic theater.  Hats off to co-directors  Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld, who are also co-founders of Fiasco Theater.  As The Old Globe’s artistic director Barry Edelstein states, this production “is proof not only of the enduring strength of this musical, but also of the power of simple theatrical storytelling to work wonders.”

Fiasco Theater Company masters the skill of storytelling.  What a brilliant choice to rework Sondheim’s much-maligned classic.  After it leaves The Old Globe, Into The Woods is scheduled to run in New York at the Roundabout Theatre.  Catch it at either venue!

Into The Woods plays at the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage of The Old Globe Theatre from July 12  to August  17, 2014.   Contact:  (619) 23-GLOBE (234-5623); or see http://www.oldglobe.org/

Armin’s Grade:  A+

by Armin Callo, Theatre & Arts Critic