The tense fantasies of “Into the Woods” and “Hamlet”

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The latest show to mark Sondheim’s long season of New York celebrations is Lear deBessonet’s delightful cover of “Into the Woods” (at the St. James). The show was born in the spring as Rented Encores! production at the City Center and, like Milky-White, the cow raised from the grave in the first act, was brought back to life on Broadway. If your heart feels like winter as your too-solid flesh melts in the searing heat, if you’ve been overwhelmed by the malaise of midsummer and the doldrums of the end times, if you can face the abandon Broadway’s masking policy and be ready to brave the BA.5 sniffles, go see it. It’s a tonic. Of course, “Into the Woods” has nearly as many body counts as “Hamlet,” with its characters falling victim to a raging giant who, depending on your metaphorical mood, could override the evils of climate change or capitalism, or the AIDS crisis (which was in full force when the musical came to town, in 1987), or the current pandemic, or some other catastrophe brought on or exacerbated by human confusion, stubbornness and greed. But there’s no need to get too crazy about symbolism. Sometimes, as Sondheim insisted, a giant is just a giant.

What Sondheim was looking for was a quest story, something fun and whimsical. It was the inspired idea of ​​his collaborator James Lapine, who wrote the book, to weave several classic fairy tales into a two-act play that begins as a farce and then takes a turn towards the tragic. Naturally, the man who made a musical about human meat pies had a taste for the wickedest Grimms bits that get left out of standard Disney fare: severed toes bleeding into fancy slippers. , princes blinded by briar thorns. Sondheim and Rabbit’s Cinderella enjoys talking to cute little birds, like the animated version does, but here the birds are helpfully pecking at her stepsisters’ eyes.

Immediately wonderful, as the curtain rises on deBessonet’s revival, is the sight of the fresh and simple set, designed by David Rockwell. There is no pit; the good musicians of the Encores! The orchestra takes center stage, with the actors posted along a shallow lip in front and sent hopping, or, in the case of ill-fated Cinderella (Phillipa Soo), stumbling, across a wood represented by birch trunks that light up like lanterns. A fairy tale is something told, as the Narrator (David Patrick Kelly) who presides over the action reminds us; its magic germinates best in the mind. Without being annoyingly meta about it, the show revels in its handcrafted humanity. The stealthy star here is shrewd puppet-maker James Ortiz, who conjures up the giant as a pair of mammoth-studded boots and built an eerily emotive Milky-White (expertly manipulated by actor Kennedy Kanagawa) from a little more than a few slices of cardboard. Watching this eminently fake animal swing its papier-mâché head happily to the beat of the music makes the heart skip a beat.

The heart and its insane and insoluble desires are the first major theme of the series. Everyone starts by wishing for something: Cinderella to go to a festival at the palace; overgrown boy Jack (Cole Thompson) to persuade his beloved Milky-White to produce milk for her family; and her mother (Aymee Garcia) to sell the unfortunate cow at market. Little Red Riding Hood (Julia Lester) wants to buy a loaf of bread to take to her grandmother – in fact, she prefers to nibble it herself – while the baker (Brian d’Arcy James), who gives, wants a child. Too bad: he and his wife are sterile, thanks to a curse placed on them by the Witch who lives next door (the lovely Patina Miller). To appease her and break the spell, the pair set off into the woods for a kind of treasure hunt that brings them into collision with their fantastical companions. A wolf is killed; some magic beans are exchanged; a young girl called Rapunzel (Alysia Velez) gets her hair cut impromptu. Everyone ends up being happy and singing about it. This is Act I. In Act II come the consequences of so many wish-fulfillments, and the second big theme of the series, Sondheim’s personal favorite: the journey from innocence to knowledge, the process ambivalent to grow up. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot!” Little Red sings, fresh from her adventure in the belly of the wolf. “And a bit no.”

“Into the Woods” is an ensemble piece, and this ensemble is great and knows it. There is a collective joy in the performances, a particular shared charisma. Lester’s maximally sassified Little Red, blessed with a blunt voice and ear-to-ears attitude, is a highlight; the duo of conceited princes, played by Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry, pull off “Agony” to perfection. Even when the giant starts stomping and the cast goes boom-squish, you still find reasons to laugh. But the hilarity is tempered by the witch’s high drama and a dose of skeptical savvy. The night I saw the show, the baker’s wife was played by Mary Kate Moore (replacing Sara Bareilles) with the grounded pragmatism of a woman who refuses to confuse reality with a fairy tale until that she discovers that she has been too sucked into a fairy tale to escape.

“What is the moral? / It must be a moral,” Sondheim wrote in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the project that taught him, as a young man, how hard it is to pull off a flying prank. This show has none, but “Into the Woods” is practically a morality piece, riddled with questions of social and family responsibility – of what we all owe each other. “Children will listen” is one of the show’s famous sayings; “No one is alone” is another. These are moving messages. Are they sung in the wind?

“The head that wears a crown is uneasy.” Another adage – Shakespeare’s, not Sondheim’s, but Cinderella can relate to. Hesitating on the palace steps, she cannot choose between running home to resume her life as a scullery or staying and kissing the stranger from a royal bed: “So out of the blue, / And without a guide, / You know what is your decision, / Who is not to decide. To be a princess or not to be a princess? Hamlet might have done better for her than Prince Charming.

Speaking of Hamlet, he’s back in town, prevaricating at the Park Avenue Armory in a sensational production starring Alex Lawther and directed by Robert Icke. The setting is elegant, with the king’s ghost spotted on security cameras, the palace laid out in a mid-century modern setting, and the action punctuated by Bob Dylan tunes. The cast is top notch. But the great excitement here is how Icke, with a mix of careful reading and clever invention, reveals new richness in the piece, exposing layers of the text that are often shattered by the practical demands of performance. (This one lasts almost four hours.) What if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were a couple? What if Guildenstern (Tia Bannon) was even, as Icke suggests, Hamlet’s ex-girlfriend? Their betrayal is now infinitely heavier and blatant, not a mere footnote. I was particularly struck by Icke’s emphasis on Claudius (Angus Wright) as a confident, Machiavellian monarch who justifies his self-interest in the name of rationality. “It’s a fault in heaven, / A fault against the dead, a fault with nature, / To reason in the most absurd way” is not a good thing to say about one’s grief at loss. of a father, but man has a kingdom to rule.

Outside of his brother’s murder case, Claudius maintains a cool head, a useful quality in a ruler. He certainly makes a better one than the prince would. Twenty-seven-year-old Lawther is a wiry, cerebral energy, hot-blooded Hamlet—a juicy extratextual kiss with Ophelia (Kirsty Rider) lets him display his sensual side. Slender, light and pale, with a pointed chin and sarcastic, slanted eyes, he seems extremely unpredictable, even to himself. Watch Hamlet after killing Polonius. The rudeness of the impulsive killing unsettles him; he transforms in an instant into a terrifying, terrified child. There is something disturbing, even dreadful, about this magnetic boy who does not want to act, even if he plays all the time. Is this real life or is it just a fantasy? Lawther’s Hamlet barely knows it, and he keeps us hanging by his side in the nebulous in-between. ♦

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