The Fraught Fantasies of “Into the Woods” and “Hamlet”

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The latest spectacle to mark New York’s protracted season of Sondheim celebration is Lear deBessonet’s delectable revival of “Into the Woods” (at the St. James). The show was born in the spring as a lauded Encores! production at City Center and, like Milky-White, the cow raised from the grave in the first act, has been brought back to life on Broadway. If your heart is feeling wintry while your too too solid flesh melts in the oppressive heat, if you’ve been overtaken by midsummer malaise and end-times doldrums, if you can deal with the dropping of Broadway’s masking policy and are ready to brave the BA.5 sniffles, go see it. It’s a tonic. Sure, “Into the Woods” has a body count that’s nearly as high as “Hamlet” ’s, its characters victimized by an enraged giant, who, depending on your metaphorical mood, might stand in for the ills of climate change or of capitalism, or the AIDS crisis (which was in full force when the musical first came to town, in 1987), or the current pandemic, or some other disaster either brought about or exacerbated by human confusion, pigheadedness, and greed. But there’s no need to get too crazy about the symbolism. Sometimes, as Sondheim insisted, a giant is just a giant.

What Sondheim was after was a quest story, something fun and fanciful. It was the inspired idea of his collaborator James Lapine, who wrote the book, to braid several classic fairy tales into a two-act piece that begins as farce and then takes a turn toward the tragic. Naturally, the man who made a musical about human meat pies had a taste for the nastier Brothers Grimm bits that get left out of standard Disney fare: sliced-off toes bleeding into fancy slippers, princes blinded by briar thorns. Sondheim and Lapine’s Cinderella likes to talk to cute little birds, as the animated version does—but here the birds helpfully peck out her stepsisters’ eyes.

Immediately wonderful, as the curtain rises on deBessonet’s revival, is the sight of the fresh and simple set, designed by David Rockwell. There is no pit; the fine musicians of the Encores! Orchestra occupy the center of the stage, with the actors stationed along a shallow lip at the front and sent skipping, or, in the case of the hapless Cinderella (Phillipa Soo), tripping, through a wood represented by birch trunks that light up like lanterns. A fairy tale is a told thing, as the Narrator (David Patrick Kelly) who presides over the action reminds us; its magic sprouts best in the mind. Without being annoyingly meta about it, the show delights in its handmade humanness. The stealth star here is the whiz puppet designer James Ortiz, who conjures the giant as a pair of mammoth hobnail boots and has constructed an uncannily emotive Milky-White (skillfully manipulated by the actor Kennedy Kanagawa) from little more than some slices of cardboard. Watching this eminently fake animal happily bob its papier-mâché head along to the music makes the heart surge.

The heart and its foolish, intractable longings are the show’s first big theme. Everyone starts out wishing for something: Cinderella to go to a festival at the palace; the overgrown boy Jack (Cole Thompson) to coax his beloved Milky-White to produce some milk for his family; and his mother (Aymee Garcia) to sell the unfortunate cow at market. Little Red Riding Hood (Julia Lester) wants to buy a loaf of bread to take to her granny—actually, she’d rather snack on it herself—while the Baker (Brian d’Arcy James), who gives it to her, wants a child. Too bad: he and his wife are barren, thanks to a curse placed on them by the Witch who lives next door (the ravishing Patina Miller). To appease her and break the spell, the couple hauls off into the woods on a kind of scavenger hunt that has them colliding with their fantastical fellows. A wolf is slain; some magic beans are traded; a maiden called Rapunzel (Alysia Velez) gets an impromptu haircut. Everybody ends up happy and singing about it. That is Act I. In Act II come the consequences of so much wish fulfillment, and the show’s second big theme, Sondheim’s personal favorite: the journey from innocence to knowledge, the ambivalent process of growing up. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot!” Little Red sings, fresh from her adventure inside the wolf’s belly. “And a little bit not.”

“Into the Woods” is an ensemble piece, and this ensemble is terrific and knows it. There’s a collective revelry to the performances, a special shared charisma. Lester’s maximally sassified Little Red, possessed of a blunt belting voice and attitude up to her ears, is a highlight; the duo of vain princes, played by Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry, pull off “Agony” to preening perfection. Even when the giant starts stomping around and the cast goes boom-squish, you still find reasons to laugh. But the hilarity is tempered by the Witch’s high drama and a dose of skeptical sense. On the night I saw the show, the Baker’s Wife was played by Mary Kate Moore (subbing for Sara Bareilles) with the grounded pragmatism of a woman who refuses to mistake reality for a fairy tale until she discovers she’s been sucked too far into one to escape.

“What is the moral? / Must be a moral,” Sondheim wrote in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the project that taught him, as a young man, what a tricky business it is to make a farce that flies. That show doesn’t have one, but “Into the Woods” is practically a morality play, consumed with questions of social and familial responsibility—of what we all owe one another. “Children will listen” is one of the show’s famous adages; “No one is alone” is another. These are moving messages. Are they being sung into the wind?

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Another adage—Shakespeare’s, not Sondheim’s, but Cinderella can relate. Hesitating on the steps of the palace, she can’t choose whether to run home to her scullery-maid life or to stay and embrace the unknown of a royal bed: “Then from out of the blue, / And without any guide, / You know what your decision is, / Which is not to decide.” To be a princess or not to be a princess? Hamlet might have made a better match for her than Prince Charming.

Speaking of Hamlet, he’s back in town, dithering at the Park Avenue Armory in a sensational production starring Alex Lawther and directed by Robert Icke. The staging is stylish, with the king’s ghost spotted on security cameras, the palace done up in mid-century-modern décor, and the action punctuated by Bob Dylan tunes. The cast is topnotch. But the big excitement here is the way that Icke, with a blend of close reading and clever invention, reveals new riches in the play, exposing layers of the text that often get stamped out by the practical exigencies of performance. (This one runs nearly four hours.) What if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were a couple? What if Guildenstern (Tia Bannon) were even, as Icke suggests, Hamlet’s ex-girlfriend? Their betrayal is now infinitely more fraught and egregious, no mere footnote. I was especially struck by Icke’s emphasis on Claudius (Angus Wright) as a confident, Machiavellian monarch who justifies his self-interest in the name of rationality. “ ’Tis a fault to heaven, / A fault against the dead, a fault to nature, / To reason most absurd” is not a nice thing to say of someone’s grief at losing a father, but the man does have a kingdom to run.

Aside from the murdering-​his-brother business, Claudius keeps a cool head, a useful quality in a ruler. Certainly he makes a better one than the Prince would. Lawther, at twenty-seven, is all jittery, brainy energy, a hot-blooded Hamlet—a juicy extratextual kiss with Ophelia (Kirsty Rider) lets him flaunt his sensual side. Thin, slight, and pale, with a sharp chin and sardonic, slanting eyes, he seems wildly unpredictable even to himself. Look at Hamlet after he kills Polonius. The full foulness of the impulsive murder unhinges him; he transforms in a moment into a terrifying, terrified child. There’s something worrying, even fearsome, about this magnetic boy who won’t act, even as he is acting all the time. Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy? Lawther’s Hamlet hardly knows, and he keeps us suspended alongside him in the nebulous in-between. ♦


This page was created programmatically, to read the article in its original location you can go to the link bellow:
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/08/the-fraught-fantasies-of-into-the-woods-and-hamlet
and if you want to remove this article from our site please contact us

Alexandra Schwartz

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