Into the Woods
The Death of the Father of Psychoanalysis (& Anna)
Eye of the Storm
MUSICALS SUCK TOO often. Big-budget shows try so hard to do one big thing--say, build an intricate set, or import a host of South African singers--that they become deformed like certain highly specialized athletes, with some muscles overdeveloped and others allowed to atrophy. Take The Lion King: Julie Taymor's design work is close to genius. Meanwhile, the music and book don't even approach the ballpark--no doubt due to both Disney's commercial agenda and the writers' shortcomings. Furthermore, the fundamental purpose of the show--that is, to raise Disney's dividends--reappears time and again in the form of awkward Disney injections that are totally at odds with Taymor's aesthetic. The result is a spiritually conflicted and artistically lopsided work.
Into the Woods presents a variation on this theme: Here, Stephen Sondheim's obsession with ideas and compulsive wordplay are the dazzlers. The show weaves several classic fairy tales together, and expands on them in order to probe heavy philosophical questions. Included are Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and the Baker and his wife (who can't conceive a child). A witch, a wolf, a giant, a narrator, and a man of mystery add to the intrigue. The central symbol, however, is the woods, where danger and temptation lurk among the trees (as in The Wizard of Oz and the Garden of Eden before). Nautilus Music-Theater (formerly the New-Music Theatre Ensemble, a cadre known for its adventurous original productions) takes its own risky journey into commercial territory with this offering. The producers make no secret that they want to attract larger audiences. But they also intend this show as a message for the arts community: We're in the post-NEA woods, where everyone scratches for survival and battles despair, but these woods may also offer wisdom.
Rather than seduce the eye with expensive illusion, stage director and scenic designer Ben Krywosz strips things bare, cleverly revealing the strings: Rapunzel's tower is a noisy mechanical lift; her hair, a frayed rope. The actors sit on benches between scenes and wear labeled T-shirts for costumes (i.e., "Witch," "Prince #2"). The local, all-star cast is uneven, though. As Little Red Riding Hood, Vanessa Muras is great: She's cartoonish, but also surprisingly real, in part because Sondheim believed in her but also because Muras does. Carolyn Goelzer also sinks her teeth (and powerful voice) into her role as the Witch. Perhaps most refreshing of all, Brian Sostek as the cow proves that concentration and simplicity matter most: Just hanging out, chewing, and looking around, he somehow wins our attention (and lots of laughs).
Red Riding Hood and the Witch are two of the best roles; many other parts aren't nearly as well-written. It's hard to care for the rather humdrum baker and his wife, for example. Yet we need to care; if we don't, their ethical conundrums in the dark second act don't seem urgent. In this half, the traditional plots, as well as the narrator, are unceremoniously tossed out. The characters are attacked by an angry giant, and as they panic, they sink into a giddy kind of crisis. The minor deceits of the first act evolve into scapegoating, escapism, mob mentality; when they begin to claim that they're "just following orders," affairs have conclusively headed south. Meanwhile, the music goes on and on and on. Songs are reprised and re-reprised. Some are sexier than others--like "Agony," the dastardly duet between two princes chasing unattainable women. Many more wallow in the muck--e.g., a song that wanders at length among the shades of meaning between "and" and "or." It's brilliant wordsmithing, yes, but before long it becomes a chore for the audience. We're relieved when, three hours later, a rather pat ending finishes things off.
Eye of the Storm's play about Anna Freud and her more famous father suffers a different disorder. The play, by local writer Bridget Carpenter, is a dream-state imagining of Freud's deathbed. Anna, played smartly by Megan Grundy, is conflicted, probably even pissed off: Her dad won't read her analytical work and her life remains a footnote to his; it seems they love and fear each other with equal depth. She would be happy enough to play Oedipus to his Laius--to give him his final morphine shot and, gender-bender that she is, enter the myth Freud so forcefully promotes in his work. Freud, played blandly by Charles Schuminski, refuses this. Greta Grosch, as the nurse, is sexy and expressive, and a few silent interludes add tension. But in the end, too little is clearly stated--even Freud's speech is garbled, an amusing but nasty trick on the character (and the bed is entirely ignored as a source of symbolism). It's as if Carpenter wanted to say something but couldn't quite manage. The result is a lot of guilty, repressed yawns.
Into the Woods runs through September 21 at the Southern Theater; call 340-1725. The Death of the Father of Psychoanalysis (& Anna) runs through September 27 at the Loring Playhouse; call 332-1619.
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