Artists and audiences return to ancient tales for myriad reasons. Some seek reunion and refreshment; others, undiscovered insights and unexpected visions. It's the tantalizing search for something new in something old.
This season's rotating repertory slot at PlayMakers is devoted to two such productions. Guest director Shana Cooper's occasionally divergent read of Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM offers some singularly striking imagery. On alternating nights, artistic director Joseph Haj takes up Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's sharp-witted social cross-examination of childhood fairy tales, Into the Woods.
Of the two, Dream wears its putative differences on its sleeves—literally, as often as not. The stark geometry of Marion Williams' set design—a strip of white carpet on a dark wood floor, a slash of white silk hanging from the technician's catwalk above stage, a suspended rectangle of grayish scrim illuminated by three fluorescent lights—suggest a high-tech industrial milieu for the court of King Theseus.
When the scrim and silk are removed, we discover three stylized white trees whose canopies are fashioned from translucent plastic. These are set against a gray back wall equipped with a row of lighting instruments that briefly blind the audience, rock-show style, at strategic points. This is the Athenian forest where the faerie monarchs Titania and Oberon contend.
Katherine O'Neill's costumes suggest a curious combination of influences. Hippolyta, Theseus' Amazonian bride-to-be, first appears in something between cyberpunk and cirque. Given her getup, we half expect her to mount the white silk she caresses in an aerial choreography display. The look works better in Ray Dooley's striking later appearances as Puck, Oberon's second-in-command.
Desperately avoiding convention, O'Neill opts to costume the rest of faerie land mostly in shades of gray. That leaves the "rude mechanicals"—the incompetent village laborers who stage the "lamentable comedy" Pyramus and Thisbe for the king's nuptials—as the most colorful group in the production.
Visually arresting but inexplicable special effects, brief but gratuitous descents into cheesecake costumes and several sore-thumb lighting cues characterize a production that seems determined to be visually outré. Erika Chong Schuch's choreography is also a mixed bag: punchy when tribal, subliminal when enhancing Titania's sleeping sequence, ineffective when mortals are merely rolling around on stage. But most striking is just how conventional the rest of this production remains.
True, Cooper employs cross-gender casting in two roles. Instead of Egeus, Kathryn Hunter-Williams plays Egia, the unbending mother of the rebellious Hermia. And Julie Fishell has a fine turn as Bottom, the incompetent lead actor of the rude mechanicals, who's fated to make an ass of himself and Titania.
Double cast, Zachary Fine makes an impetuous Oberon and a sharp Theseus; Lisa Birnbaum's double-duty as Titania and Hippolyta is similarly nuanced. Dooley gets the largest stretch of the evening as he segues between Puck, Theseus' administrator Philostrate, and the milquetoast Snug.
Allison Altman plays up the pique of Helena, loved by none and then by all through the intervention of the faeries. Her catfights with Hermia (Arielle Yoder) for the affections of the suave Demetrius (William Hughes) and Lysander (Schuyler Scott Mastain) are rewarding.
Cooper boosts the ribaldry of the play-within-a-play in the final act, in part by having Theseus stand in as the fateful wall between the lovers. But what would we have seen if Cooper interrogated the characters and their relationships, in any other part of this work, with the same relentlessness with which the design team investigated their surroundings and clothes? That's the question I wish this production answered.
But wishes are risky things. That's one of the points of INTO THE WOODS.
On Williams' warm library of a set (with a tree or three among the stacks), a diaspora of fairy-tale characters—including a resilient Cinderella (Caroline Strange), a bratty Little Red Riding Hood (Jessica Sorgi), a clueless Rapunzel (Carey Cox) and Jack, of the infamous beanstalk (Jorge Donoso)—learn that wishes and acts can both have unintended consequences.
One such consequence sets the central story in motion: a witch's curse that keeps a baker and his wife (sincere Jeffrey Meanza and no-nonsense Garrett Long) childless. The curse can be lifted if the pair steals four objects that should prevent the fairy tales above from being completed.
The witch remains the riddle in this 1987 work. Part agente provocateuse, part voice of conscience, she's an outsider whose love and ethics make her capable of true extremity. Lisa Brescia is disadvantaged in this role in the first part of the evening, when her face is hidden behind a mask that might have been lifted from a Sid and Marty Krofft TV show in the 1970s.
Under Haj's direction, she's certainly no Maleficent retread or Margaret Hamilton cliché. But after she transforms mid-show, we're clearer on who the witch isn't than who she is. When songs like "The Last Midnight" and "Children Will Listen" aren't as effectively sold as most of the others, I'm left wondering how much of the witch's story this team has figured out now—and how much they will by closing night.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Once (again) upon a time"