INTO THE WOODS in search of happy endings

At OSF, the complex Lapine-Sondheim musical "Into the Woods" gives our fairy tales an adult twist


Shakespeare loved to send characters into the forest. The most obvious examples are As You Like It, where journeys into the forest of Arden result in dramatic transformations of heart, mind, and even gender; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the forest leads to a night of love and chaos that helps set the befuddled lovers right. But think also of the climaxes of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline, or even the island forest of The Tempest.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is producing two of these plays this year (Two Gentlemen and The Tempest), and they are also producing what proves to be a fitting contemporary counterpoint: James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

In OSF's "Into the Woods" Miriam A. Laube tugs  on Royer Bockus's golden hair/Photo  T. Charles Erickson

In OSF’s “Into the Woods” Miriam A. Laube tugs on Royer Bockus’s golden hair/Photo T. Charles Erickson

Into the Woods is an amalgamation and adaptation of Western European fairy tales, but it shares Shakespeare’s understanding of the metaphorical import of the woods. The woods are Elsewhere, a place free of society and its rules and thus a place where something like a truer self can, perhaps, emerge…for good or bad. Amanda Dehnert’s production visualizes this journey by starting the actors out in modern dress with music stands, then sending them deeper and deeper into fairy tale costumes, props, and magic tricks as they move farther and farther into the woods. At the end of his plays, Shakespeare sends his characters out of the woods to resume their normal lives; Sondheim and Lapine’s characters learn that you are never really out.

The musical begins with a familiar line-up: Cinderella, dreaming of the prince’s ball; Jack, about to discover his beanstalk; a witch with a stolen, long-haired daughter hidden away in a tower; and Little Red Ridinghood off to visit granny. Their stories are united by that old fairy tale standby, a childless couple, a baker and his wife, who are sent on a quest by the witch to lift the spell that has left them barren. But even though Act One builds to the happy ending we expect, in Act Two, archetypal skins are shed and richer, fuller, sadder selves are found beneath. Even so, the show is hilarious throughout, and Dehnert doesn’t shy away from its full comic potential with ad-libbed asides and some very clever audience participation (I know, it sounds impossible, but it’s true). She then masterfully breaks down the presentational joyfulness that she has created, painting in tragedy with a deft hand and seeming to recognize that a director is best served by letting this masterful score and book speak for itself.

Javier Muñoz and Rachael Warren make a beautiful central couple as the Baker and his Wife, building a charming and loving rapport that is easy to believe in and impossible not to root for. Miriam A. Laube is, as ever, another highlight as the Witch, whose complicated relationship with her daughter and her own mother was revealed to me anew in this production as a mirror of that between the Baker and the mysterious father who caused the curse his son must break. On the comic side, the show is nearly stolen by John Tufts and Jeremy Peter Johnson as the self-obsessed, perfectly-coiffed Prince Charmings who court Cinderella and Rapunzel. Their “horseback” entrances are quite literally showstoppers. Also deserving of particular mention is Robin Goodrin Nordli as Jack’s Mother, almost unrecognizable if not for the irrepressible talent with which she fills out a potentially slender role.

Like a good fairy tale, Into the Woods is deceptively simple. The morals of the story are easy to find, when the characters don’t state them outright. But much of their power is in this simplicity. As the show itself reminds us, fairy tales are used to teach lessons to children, so the point is not to bury the message too deeply. When it’s well done, Into the Woods, similarly, is less revelation than reminder of difficult truths. The actors and director here succeed beautifully not because they reinterpret, but because they inhabit what is written fully and truthfully.

There’s a trend of fairy tale rewrites right now, but unlike so many examples of the genre, the goal in Into the Woods is not to be cynical or gritty, or to tell us that everything we thought we knew was wrong. It is rather to say that what we have grown up and realized must be wrong—that finding the girl who fits the slipper means true love, that you’ll be safe from wolves as long as you follow the rules, that having the longed-for child is the end of the story—really is wrong.

Cinderella (Jennie Greenberry) has a helpful Fairy Godmother (Royer Bockus)  in OSF's "Into the Woods." Photo  T. Charles Erickson.

Cinderella (Jennie Greenberry) has a helpful Fairy Godmother (Royer Bockus) in OSF’s “Into the Woods.” Photo T. Charles Erickson.

For Shakespeare, going into the woods can only take place in comedies and romances: The loss of self that his lovers in the woods experience is often terrifying, but the fear is undercut by the genre’s assurance that all will be well. Lear’s heath perhaps offers a glimpse of what Shakespeare imagined could happen if this loss of self were translated into a tragic world. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe Sondheim and Lapine’s show as a tragedy, though they too reveal that returning to the woods after what would be the ending of a comedy leads to something more complicated than happily ever after.

The nineteen-year-old daughter of Richard Curtis, screenwriter and director famous for such films as Love Actually and Notting Hill, recently wrote an embarrassing opinion piece for The Telegraph complaining about her realization that Into the Woods, the film adaptation of which is set for a Christmas release, doesn’t end with happily ever after. She has never seen the musical and certainly hasn’t seen the film, but she took to her keyboard anyway to complain that happy endings are important.

I’m not so sure Into the Woods doesn’t have one. The original Broadway production (which was filmed and is available on Netflix) had a very peppy ending number that may bring to mind some of Shakespeare’s trickier comedies, where joyful couples embrace as those left single slink away into exile or vow revenge.

Dehnert presents a more subdued finale, but though sad things have taken place, I still wouldn’t necessarily call the ending in itself so. In fact, the final line got a laugh the night I saw the show, nothing uproarious, certainly, but scattered chuckles of recognition: There’s life yet to live for these characters. Or, (because why try to put something better than Stephen Sondheim can?) “it’s always when/ you think at last you’re through, and then/into the woods you go again.”


Hailey Bachrach also reviewed the Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions of Richard III and The Two Gentlemen of Verona for Oregon ArtsWatch.

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