Paul Sanchez and Olivia Clari Nice in Stephen Sondheim’s new Zach Theater production In the woods (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)
Stephen Sondheim’s devious interweaving of the Brothers Grimm’s greatest hits may seem like an ensemble piece, but In the woods will always revolve around the baker and his wife. With Paul Sanchez and Olivia Clari Nice as the protagonists and occasional troublemakers in the new Zach Theater production, audiences are immediately in good hands.
It’s vital, with the stage temporarily reopening and people worrying about enclosed environments and wondering how many seats they can keep away from strangers. This is where director Dave Steakley took the stress out of everything but the story, by reinventing the outdoor theatrical experience. If the antlers can’t come to the public …
Steakley’s In the woods is a refreshing answer to the need for outdoor production: less of a ride than of a wheelie. Using the People’s Square in front of the Topfer, the audience is seated on wheeled desk chairs and the actors move from stage to stage, environment to environment, and making maximum use of existing foliage. Theater in the round upside down, so to speak.
It can be awkward, but the soft squeak of the gathered crowd politely spinning together gives a sense of community – appropriate for a musical about unlikely cohorts. The baker and his wife want a baby, Little Red (Justine Grace, sufficiently dizzy and precocious) wants baked goods, Jack’s mother (June Julian, keeping an overdone character under hilarious control) wants her son (Langston Lee, perfectly distraught), while Cinderella (Shelby Acosta, excellent both as Cinders and Ella) wants the prince’s attention but not the prince. Of course, unintended consequences abound.
Justine Grace and Ethan Rogers in new Zach Theater production In the woods (Photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)
Where production stumbles is in the desire to make it contemporary. When that touch is lightest, such as using a large screen to display the contents of the characters’ cell phone screens, it adds a new lightness. But the subtext becomes a heavily underlined text in the second act, when the giantess stomping through the countryside becomes an obvious but inelegant metaphor for the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, sending Rapunzel howling in madness. Sondheim’s work inherently believes audiences will understand this to be a fable about unintended consequences, but these moments are too specific, as if the audience can’t make those connections. Perhaps that’s a jerk for directors, as the second act deliberately loses the sense of the casual opening hour focus for a more hazy feeling of confusion and chaos. It is as if productions cannot avoid filling this void. In this case, these modernizations are didactic and out of place, but fortunately ephemeral.
But when production cuts down and takes advantage of the environment and the text, it’s a clever delight. Ingenuity is everywhere, from self-rotating seats and interacting with the forest, to the hilarious use of a golf cart and fiberglass cow. There is something deliciously homemade about the directing, the ingenuity that comes with the experience.
And even with a solid set (notably Nova Payton, who does more than fill the witch’s robes with all the grandeur and bubble-bursting required by the role), it’s Nice and Sanchez who anchor the emotional heart of the tale. cunning fairy from Sondheim. Nice in particular emerges from the forest, finding all the lust, desire, desperation and restraint in “Moments in the Woods” and making it one of the truly memorable numbers in the series.
In the woods
Zach Theater, 202 South Lamar
Until November 7
Tickets and info on zachtheatre.org.