Though the setting was minimal, the dialogue was anything but in the ROC Players’ production of “Into the Woods” last weekend.
It is difficult to describe the plot without spoiling anything. A baker (junior Will Cunningham) and his wife (junior Jane Huffer) need to undo a curse placed by a witch (junior Kelly Whitesell) so they can have a baby. Their quest is interwoven with the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella. If you’re wondering if “Shrek” ripped this off, that makes two of us.
Reviewing my notes on the performance, one word kept on popping up: impressive. Sondheim’s musicals requires no end of vocal talent and, notoriously, the ability to talk really fast. A lot. “Into the Woods” is no exception.
Somehow, everyone in the cast managed to do this challenging work justice. The vocal and dramatic performances held the play together like cement.
So, remember that plot summary I gave the paragraph before last? Here’s the thing: That’s just Act I. I’ll try to describe Act II without spoiling too much. Imagine the Brothers Grimm wrote a sequel to all of their fairy tales, but in between the first and second book, God died.
In Act I, we meet the characters, and we see their familiar stories play out, with modifications made to accommodate the tale of the Baker and his wife. There are some splashes of darkness, like the queasy, implicitly sexual interaction between Little Red Riding Hood (junior Rachel Coons) and the Wolf (junior Charlie Aldrich), but the first act is, at its core, set-up for the second.
Despite the demonstrated skill of the cast, the first act spends far too much time introducing characters and stories that we already know. But Cinderella (senior Sophia Stone) and Huffer as the Baker’s Wife deliver strongly, while Coons as Little Red Riding Hood is particularly funny, as are Aldrich and freshman Shawn Cummings as two selfish princes.
But the emotional foundations that held the otherwise fluffy first act together for me were the Witch and Rapunzel (sophomore Gwen Paker). The scenes and songs conveying their isolated mother-daughter relationship were tender and sad, in an overly-long act that is mostly lighthearted.
If Act I is a standard story where everything fits neatly into boxes, Act II blows up the boxes. It possesses an existential anxiety that suddenly makes these fantastical, ridiculous characters all too real.
Sondheim and Lapine don’t want to destroy any archetypes (except for maybe the charming prince). Instead, they want to humanize them.
ROC Players conveyed the grief and confusion of Act II so movingly that you forget you’re watching a fairy tale. All you know is that you’re watching people struggle. It’s shockingly believable.