[Originally published at Coming to the Edge.]
This last Monday I threw up my hands and said “Screw working, I’m going to go see a show!” I ended up at STAGEright’s production of Into the Woods—the most hipster Sondheim I’ve ever seen. And I mean that in the nicest possible way, because it also ranks as one of the most enjoyable Into the Woods I’ve seen.
The costumes, by Chelsea Cook, might be my favorite part of the design. Clad in vests and skinny jeans, slouchy beanies and A-line skirts (and a little bit of drag), the cast wouldn’t look out of place walking the streets of Capitol Hill. Alyssa Milione’s lighting gives the show the sepia tone of an Instagram filter. The general effect reminds me of the autumnal feel of theoriginal Broadway production, but made contemporary—appropriate for a play about familiar stories turned on their heads.
Director Matt Giles has created a truly minimal show. The set consists of just three ladders, some crates, a trash can, and some suitcases; the orchestra is replaced with a piano, a cello, a violin, a drum-set, and a chorus of kazoos; and in a show that’s traditionally full of symbolic double-casting, Giles has gone one step further and triple-cast a couple of actors. A clothes hanger becomes a harp, and a megaphone becomes a giant. It’s the kind of theatrical magic I love best, where all the work is done with a gesture and imagination. Transformation, appropriately, is the name of the game. (Special kudos in this arena have to go to Nathan Brockett, who not only transforms from Cinderella’s Prince to the Wolf, and from one of Cinderella’s step-sisters to Cinderella’s Prince within songs, but also ran back to the band to play violin.)
By stripping away production elements to the bare essentials, Giles gives the story and the words primacy. It’s a credit to the cast that during some of Sondheim’s most rapid-fire lyrics, I was delighted to hear (and understand!) lines I’d never heard before. And Giles makes a smart choice in letting the story stand on its own merits without trying to comment on it: Into the Woods is a rock-solid story with enough complicated ideas and emotions on its own.
This means that if you’re a Woods aficionado, you’re not necessarily going to be surprised by the story you see. All the emotional beats and arcs that you know and love are there, landed with confidence and competence, but familiarity. But that also means that if you’ve never seen Woods before, you should absolutely go see this one and ruin future productions for yourself.
Because I do think you could do way, way worse than to use this as your baseline Woods. The intimate space, the smart staging, and the obvious energy and pleasure of the cast give the whole production a sense of magic. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, et cetera–but I think, too, you’ll wonder. And the woods are made for wondering.