Fiasco’s minimalist ‘Into the Woods’ enchants at SHN

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In Fiasco Theater Company’s production of “Into the Woods,” now at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, the trees are trimmed to their barest elements.

The Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine classic of fairy tale revisionism is winnowed down to its core. The newly minimal cast reduces a sprawling storybook ensemble to 10 actors, most of them performing multiple roles. Orchestration is provided not by a full pit but by a piano, occasionally accompanied by cast members playing various instruments. Then there are the props, which look like the odds and ends dug up from a theater’s storage closet after an overdue clean — tailor’s dummies, mysterious paintings, funny hats. The look of the show is as charming and off-kilter as the story it tells.

“Woods” follows a motley collection of dreamers lifted from Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault tales on their respective journeys into the woods. There’s an indecisive maiden who wishes to go the festival, Cinderella (Laurie Veldheer), a sad young lad who will climb a beanstalk, Jack (Patrick Mulryan), and a hungry little girl on her way to Granny’s, Little Red Ridinghood (Lisa Helmi Johanson, also playing Rapunzel). The original characters in the mix are a childless Baker (Evan Harrington) and his wife (Eleasha Gamble), who are on a quest to find items for the witch (Stephanie Umoh) who cursed their family for messing with her greens.

Fiasco has put together an astonishing cast. Every actor is talented in their own right, though Darick Pead and Anthony Chatmon II are particular scene-stealers in their very funny triple roles — Milky White/Florinda/Rapunzel’s Prince and Lucinda/Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince, respectively. Each member fits seamlessly into the onstage community, supporting one another at every turn with added orchestration or taking on small roles, as when a few players flutter pieces of paper to portray Cinderella’s birds.

“We’re all making magic together,” said Patrick Mulryan, who plays both Jack and the Steward.  

The audience is a participant too. “Into the Woods” could easily be weighed down by an extravagant treatment of its fantastical subject matter, or worse, smugly wrapped up in irony, but directors Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld skillfully avoid both. Instead, this “Woods” is playful, finding magic in the medium of theater itself and inviting the audience to join in the fun.  

“The audience is like our co-collaborator,” Mulryan explained. “If I’m on stage and I’m pretending a feather duster is a magical hen … you need to meet me halfway.” The production encourages the mood of “kids on a playground,” as Mulryan put it, the feeling of grabbing whatever you have on hand and creating a story on the spot. In the kingdom Fiasco creates, a man wearing a bell can be a beloved cow and a curtain rod can be a gown. The seemingly improvisational swiftness with which scenes and characters shift brings a jolt of joy to “Woods.”  

Derek McLane’s gorgeous scenic design offers the perfect backdrop for this. The mismatched chandeliers and broken piano parts evoke a crowded antique shop or a Joseph Cornell assemblage piece. The feeling that these odds and ends have been found and lovingly pieced together is reminiscent of childhood discovery.

Without realistic props and ornate orchestration, the bulk of “Woods” rests on the acting and singing of these performers for success, and this cast is entirely up to the task. The theatricality also allows for some visually stunning scenes, particularly two moments involving shadow play to create what isn’t there.

The collaborative nature of Fiasco’s imagining works perfectly for “Into the Woods.” As the musical’s penultimate song, “No One Is Alone” is made literal on stage. “Even when you’re singing a solo, you know you have this entire group behind you, supporting you,” Mulryan said. In every detail of the staging, the symbiotic, messy spontaneity of what can happen to bakers and boys and hungry little girls in the woods is made manifest.  

As Veldheer warned newcomers in the audience, don’t leave halfway through the woods. What happens after happily ever after is the crux of the show. In fact, it is life itself.      

“Into the Woods” is currently showing at SHN Golden Gate Theatre until April 2.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.