“Once upon a time!” begins Into the Woods, the theatre department’s first spring semester production. This musical, set in a fairy-tale world of curses, witches and adventures, primarily follows the path of a poor baker and his wife. In their journey to have a child and later to protect that child, the pair encounters wolves, argue with witches and pursue a rather reluctant cow. They build strong friendships with classic fairy-tale characters like Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, and together they struggle through moral dilemmas and life-threatening situations.
Incorporating steampunk aesthetics – quasi-Victorian attributes that also nod toward industry and steam power – Into the Woods creates a distinct world. Abstract trees populate the set, their pillar-like bases topped with ornately carved, suspended branches. Stark white trees painted on the black floor mirror those painted on the backdrop, and the floor branches seem to crawl across the stage toward the audience. Deep reds, yellows and greens in the lighting design contrast the black and white tonality. These bold colors silhouette the trees on the backdrop and compliment the stage lighting, adding greater depth to the more realistic light on the actors.
Costuming also attracts the eye. In many ways similar to our classic views of princes, witches and peasants, these characters wear earth tones along with metallic colors, and these contribute to the play’s mechanical tone.
Though the set, costumes, and lighting designs are wonderful, I don’t think I need to further detail their beauty. Seeing the show – which you should certainly do – celebrates these attributes more fully than I can.
My only major problem with Into the Woods stems from lack of commitment to character. Many actors were emotionally engaged, but the few in each scene who weren’t distracted me. I needed everyone fully engaged in order to trust the magical world before me. Believing the fantastical aspects (the witch’s magic, the off-stage giant and the personified animals) required work, and having honest, consistent narrators would have helped me trust that strange world. Please don’t misunderstand me, though; I don’t mean that the acting was bad. But because Into the Woods takes place in a world so different than mine, I needed the actors to believe in it so that I could too. Instead, some acted like people from our world talking about a fairy tale: distant and imaginary, beautiful but far from their experience.
None of this means that the show failed to strike strong emotional chords. I love this show, and I love this production. I have seen the last four songs of Into the Woods four times (three here on stage, once in the film version), and I have cried every single time because the writing, songs and acting are beautiful. I wish the whole production, as impractical a hope as this is, had that quality. Right now we have a good play; a fun, and in many ways a beautiful play. I want a great play, one that strikes deep emotional and humorous chords throughout. To ask for something entirely beautiful is unrealistic. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing.