This month, The Sunset Playhouse hosts the weird musical fantasy fairy tale collision Into the Woods. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a production of the musical. This past Thursday it was fun to return to the land where fairy tales meet courtesy of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. As always, the 300-word space that I’ve got for my upcoming Shepherd-Express print review of the show leaves out a few details that I would have loved to get into. Here’s some of what didn't make it in:
The Cow Has A Handle
The part of Milky White the Cow is played by a rather tasteful, little prop with a cute, little handle on its back. The Nick Korneski set has a few different levels to it which require actors to lift and carry the little cow. They carry it like a large suitcase. There’s something really, really appealing about the design of this cow. It’s a shiny, white thing without any features on its face other than a mail slot-like mouth. Open it up and in go a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn...very cute design on that cow.
Check it out in the photo above: The cow visible on the far left side of the picture--slack-jawed looking on in awe at Laura Monagle being all witch-like to Nathan Marinan and Carrie Gray as a Baker and the Baker's Wife. You might not b e able to tell from the picture, but that cow is very cool and surprisingly expressive for something without a face.
It’s Like a Surveillance Camera with The Wolf andRed Riding Hood
It’s not the easiest thing imaginable to try to stage: You’ve got the wolf. You’ve got Red Riding Hood. Red Riding Hood gets devoured by the wolf. In walks a baker, who slices open the wolf and pulls out little Red. Even with a huge budget, there are a lot of weird logistics to work out. There are a lot of questions to answer: How realistic should it look? How messy does it have to be? Do we really want to traumatize people? Questions like that.
Sunset finds a cute way to stage the Red/Wolf showdown with shadow puppets. There’s a sheet. There’s clearly the silhouette of a wolf in bed. Across from the bed is little Red in silhouette. In the midst of the set, it doesn’t really feel like traditional puppet theatre, though. It feels more like lo-res security cam video from inside Grandma’s house. Oddly enough, it works even though there isn’t really any other shadow puppetry in the entire show.
The classic dialogue between Red and the wolf plays out as we watch the puppets move. Kevin J. Gadzalinski and Ella Rose Kleefisch manage to make the classic dialogue between Wolf and Red seem fresh even though the lines are some of the best-known in all of literature. In walks the Baker (Nathan Marinan) and slices the sheet in half. Out walks Kleefisch. It’s a very cute staging.
So...There’s This Giant...
The giant in question is the center of the conflict for Act Two. She’s come down to earth from the sky to get revenge. So she’s a villain...but it’s more complicated than that because the heroes of the story...haven’t exactly been heroes.
The giant is present onstage in the form of a voice and booming footfalls. The space of Sunset’s Furlan Auditorium is a suitably large space for the deafening bass of giant footfalls to echo through. Sound designer Heather Pulkowski and sound engineer Jan Pritzl did a really good job of delivering the immensity of the giant to the stage. Pulkowski and Pritzl generally did a really good job with the sound for the first performance. The bewildering number of mics and speakers and things that must go into a production like this always tend to result in pops and clicks and things and aside from a brief moment where the Witch’s mike went out, this production of Into the Woods is one of the better soundscapes I’ve seen for a musical. By contrast touring productions that people pay ridiculous prices for at the Marcus Center always end up having annoying sound problems throughout a show. So happy to have Pulkowski and Pritzl putting together a satisfying soundscape here. It's interesting to track the origin of the presence of the giant in the second act. With no actor onstage, the existence of this character is a fusion between sound design, reactions of the actors onstage, the imagination of the audience AND...the work of a voice actor. Everything fused pretty well for me in the Sunset production...for the most part...
How Giants Talk To People
You never know what’s going to hit you as a distraction when you’re going in to see a show. Somewhere towards the end of the production I realized that I have an opinion on how it is that giants would talk to non-giants. (?) I may never have actually given it any conscious consideration before, but now I know...I have an opinion on how giants talk.
The giant in question is not visible but you know she’s there. Jana Rinelli plays the voice of the unseen giant. There wasn’t anything specifically wrong with the way that Rinelli delivers the lines. It's totally consistent with the overall feel of the play, but...she might have been directed to perform as a traditional villain. The plot doesn't give her a whole lot of depth, so it's understandable. She IS upset and angry and vengeful and such, but there was something off about the gruff anger for me. When a giant is angry with another giant, she might sound traditionally angry, vengeful and villainous. When a giant is talking to a non-giant though? THAT’s going to sound different to me. I don’t know why (exactly) Like I said...I didn’t even realize that I had an opinion on this until I tried to figure out what I didn’t like about the giant’s voice, but I imagine more of a maternal thing going on in her voice as she talks to tiny, little people cowering beneath her. She’s upset. They’ve done something very, very wrong and very malicious and . . . something more complicated than traditional menace might be called for here. She's not going to think of them as being equals, so she's not going to talk to them with anger directed directly at them in a traditionally villainous tone.
Again...I realize that I’m talking about this like I’m some sort of an expert on a mythical creature. It's kind of a strange thing to be distracted by, but evidently I have an opinion on this sort of thing. You learn so much about yourself when you go to see a show. A casual trip to the theatre can be a strange, strange journey.
Sunset Playhouse’s production of Into the Woods runs through Mar. 18 at the Furlan Auditorium on 800 Elm Grover Road in Elm Grove. For ticket reservations, call 262-782-4430 or visit sunsetplayhouse.com. A concise review of the show runs in next week’s print edition of The Shepherd-Express.