Editor’s Note: the following article contains spoilers
Having grown up doing theater for over a decade, I thought the “magic of theater” would disappear as I got older. I thought that being more involved and seeing how it all comes together would cause it to lose some of its mystery and wonder.
It wasn’t until high school when I decided to be a member of the crew, rather than a member of the cast, that this changed. Being a part of crew gave me a new perspective and greater appreciation for everything that the crew does for the show; they are the ones creating the magic.
There’s a saying among crew members that the audience should only notice them if something goes wrong. However, for The Kennedy Center’s production of Into The Woods, this proved to be the opposite. In this version, the cast was the crew, creating a unique dynamic reminiscent of devised theater. This means the set, costumes, props and casting were more simplistic than a typical stage production and included minor elements of improvisation.
The musical is centered around classic storybook tales, including Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. However, all of the plotlines intertwine as the characters not only meet one another, but become dependent upon one another, as well.
In this production, instead of each story getting its own set, the stage was set up in a very general manner with only the addition of a few key props for the various scenes. However, the props were not usually representative of the actual object, but rather a common object that somewhat mirrored the original.
For example, when Jack brought home a hen that lays Golden Eggs from the home of the Giants at the top of the beanstalk, Philippe Arroyo carried around a feather duster. When Rapunzel sat in her tower, actress Lisa Helmi Johanson was sitting on the rungs of a wooden ladder attached to a platform. The actors relied on their talent to make the audience believe the prop or set piece was what they claimed it to be. This is where the elements of devised theater can be seen. Everything was very minimalistic, pushing audience attention to the talent of the actors themselves.
There is very little dialogue in the musical, so the actors must sing for a majority of the show, demonstrating the amount of talent they must have to be able to sing for the entire three-hour production. The plot is moved along by short musical exchanges between characters, followed by brief dialogue, then a larger musical number.
Traditionally, the production is done with standard staging, with each actor playing only one role and leaving the stage at the end of their scene. However, the cast for this version was very small, consisting of only 10 actors for 17 roles. As a result, the costumes were appropriate for the era, but very plain and peasant-like. This allowed for easy transitions from character to character, usually only done by donning or taking off a single element of their costume, such as a cloak, overskirt or hat, once again adding elements of devised theater.
Not only did the actors frequently adjust their costumes, they would do it on stage. At first, I was appalled they would be instructed to ignore a crucial element that makes theater so magical: the idea that everything appears to happen so flawlessly, yet we as the audience never know it’s happening. But I realized early into the show that it added to this magic.
The actors in each scene had the powerful gift of being able to captivate an audience in such a way that the audience didn’t want to pay attention to the blatant costume changes happening on the stage. While the audience knew Little Red Riding Hood was pulling off her cloak and putting on a yellow, crochet-like hat with blonde braids attached to it, Cinderella had stolen our attention as she wept on her mother’s grave, wishing to go to the festival.
Overall, the actors that had more than one role intentionally played at least one of them very untraditionally. For example, Anthony Chatmon II played Lucina (one of Cinderella’s step-sisters), the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince. When he was the Wolf, he simply held up a mounted wolf’s head and walked around the stage with it. When he first appeared, I thought it would be extremely cheesy and take away from the wolf’s unctuous manner. But as soon as Chatmon opened his mouth, it was better than if he had been in full costume. He was able to demonstrate an incredibly wide range of facial expressions that added depth and mystery to the Wolf that would have otherwise been missed if he had been in a full costume, rather than simple, neutral clothing.
In contrast, when portraying Cinderella’s step-sister, he was intentionally ostentatious and obnoxious. The Prince is also supposed to have a brother, played by Darick Pead. Pead also acted as Cinderella’s other step-sister, Florinda. Originally, I was confused as to why the step-sisters were played by men, whose only costumes were a piece of fabric attached to a curtain rod held in front of them. But after watching the relationship between the two brothers and the two step-sisters, I began to see the parallel. It was a very smart casting choice, and foreshadowed who the two brothers would become by the end of the show.
Between their scenes, the actors not only sat in chairs along the rim of the stage, but interacted with the production as if they were audience members. Once again, I was shocked that they were instructed to pull themselves out of character, however briefly, as they laughed at Jack’s jokes, swooned at the Prince declaring his love for Cinderella and cried when Little Red Riding Hood got attacked by the Wolf. But as the show went along, it became more realistic that the characters would connect to the emotion of the other characters in the Woods since their stories were all connected.
Not only did the actors interact as characters, they became the crew and orchestra as well. They performed all the music in the show on the stage, lining the edges, with pianist Evan Rees accompanying the entire performance. They also created every sound effect themselves. For example, there are a few moments in the show where a baby is supposed to be crying, so the female cast members took turns providing the baby’s whine.
When added together, these elements created a more haunting, eerie sense of foreboding, knowing that every emotion the audience felt was created by the actors and the actors alone. But I think the way it was done is what made it such a rich experience. They were not trying to diminish the importance of a crew or orchestra, but rather mirror the sense of near claustrophobia and forced togetherness the characters encountered in the Woods.
By the end of the show, many of the characters perished at the hands of a Giant. However, these actors were still needed to move sets around. Once their character died, they were very stoic and almost catatonic until the set needed to be shifted. While the characters left alive sang about the memory of those they lost and acting in their vision, their dead loved ones moved around the stage as if in a dream world. Their slow drifting movement helped created the image of a drifting memory.
The show’s actual technology seemed to be one of the most basic elements of the production. It appeared easy and effortless, yet the amount of time and effort put into perfecting it is apparent. The use of lighting and shadows was especially impressive. When Little Red Riding Hood arrived at Granny’s house, a sheet was wrapped around the base of Rapunzel’s ladder with a spotlight shining upward from the stage. Almost every actor came together to create a part of the Wolf’s shadow, and eventually his death with the saving of Granny and Little Red Riding Hood as they emerged from his stomach. Each actor created a different element of the scene, epitomizing the idea of building theater from absolutely nothing but your own self.
When the show began, I immediately saw the talent of the actors. I was, however, skeptical about the other elements and how they would come together. While it was unconventional and new for me, I was very impressed. From Vanessa Reseland’s (Witch) ghostly rendition of “Last Midnight” to Laurie Veldheer (Cinderella) running away from the Prince, the talent made a small production so much larger. With powerful vocals and four-part harmonies, it was 10 people made to look like the talent of many that allowed this seemingly simple musical to remind everyone of the complicated magic of love, loss and theater.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Facebook.
Morgan Politzer is a freshman journalism major and can be reached a email@example.com.