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Into The Liminal Woods

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T. Charles Erickson

Rituals of initiation unfold in three phases: the first separates the individual from the world she’s taken for granted; the third reintegrates her into a new world as a changed person. Between the two is the liminal phase, in which the individual floats in a kind of dreamland of possibility, suspended between selves and social roles. Both terrifying and transformational, this in-between phase encourages a sort of regression to pre-conscious chaos. Into the Woods, the brilliant musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, plants its action in just such a no-man’s land. I can’t imagine anyone better disposed to direct its OSF production in the Elizabethan Theatre than Amanda Dehnert. Ever respectful of theatre’s roots in ritual, she approaches the making of it as the crafting of liminal space.

As with her affecting past productions of Julius Caesar and My Fair Lady, Dehnert expands Into the Woods to include its pre-curtain chaos. The orchestra wanders in and takes its prominent position onstage. Meanwhile, actors in street clothes enter, greet each other, and wave to individuals in the audience as they warm up bodies and voices. Dehnert is nudging us into that ritual no-man’s land in between the dramatic world and the world we consider real. The program notes, by the way, that over half the musicians are apprentices, thus experiencing their own initiation into the professional big-time. Like Red Riding Hood meeting with the Wolf or Jack with Mrs. Giant, they must be both “excited and scared.”

Then the music stands appear. So this is going to be a concert performance, we conclude. We’ll be hanging onto the real world after all. But the Narrator delivers his “Once upon a time,” and the next thing we know we’re adrift in imaginary space. When did the actors with music stands grow costumes and become characters? When did that pail sporting the label COW become the forlorn Milky White? When exactly was this dramatic world born, and how? Dehnert’s strategy pins us in a place where things are neither pretend nor real and thus both? If we’re surprised, disoriented, that’s the faintest foretaste of things to come.

Just as Dehnert blurs the boundaries between the real and her fictional world, Into the Woods posits a kingdom where four familiar fairy tales run side by side, energized by their frequent collisions. The meta-story revolves around the Baker and his wife, who pine for a child. But the Baker’s parents were cursed with sterility by the Witch for robbing her garden. To lift the curse, they must track down four items—a cow, a red cape, a gold slipper, and yellow hair. Thus their quest will overlap with the private quests of the impoverished Jack (of beanstalk fame), the scatterbrained Red Riding Hood, the abused Cinderella, and the stifled Rapunzel. By the end of Act One, the individual tales have achieved their familiar happy endings. So has the Baker’s story. But a collective challenge lies ahead.

The mood darkens ominously in Act Two, for the characters learn that “wishes come true, not free.” Dissatisfaction and confusion plunge into catastrophe when the Giant’s Wife descends to earth demanding a sacrifice to avenge her husband’s death at Jack’s hands. Ritual action shifts into tragic mode. Random fatalities follow. The kingdom succumbs to a state of terror, while the two Princes do nothing but toodle around on a red bike and a blue bike, competing with each other as to who is more miserable. Meanwhile, the survivors blame each other for causing the mess.

The crazy shifting of frames and fairy tales could not succeed as powerfully as it does without the intense commitment of the actors to its normalcy. The well-meaning but pedestrian Baker (Javier Munoz), his edgy Wife (Rachel Warren), indecisive Cinderella (Jennie Greenberry), resilient Jack (Miles Fletcher), sassy Red Riding Hood (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), languishing Rapunzel (Royer Bockus)—all wrestle in dead earnest with their fates. If the princes (John Tufts and Jeremy Peter Johnson) seem less sincere, chalk it up to nurture—they were raised only to be charming.

Miriam Laube as the Witch gives emotional depth to this critical queen-pin of the plot, who evolves from an arugula-obsessed hag to a needy and finally broken heart. Her physical transformation midway to a beautiful woman remains a mystery of execution, as do the impossible changes Catherine Coulson undergoes—from cow to wicked stepmother to regurgitated grandmother—with udder poise (sorry) and aplomb.

Into the Woods explores the core human impulse to wish. The verb begins the action and concludes it, which is to say that wishing is about not fulfillment but something else, like conjuring the freedom and possibility of liminal space. Jack wishes he could live in between the giants in the sky and the demands of earth. Cinderella wants something in between the nightmare reality of her father’s house and the fantasy of the prince’s. The princes realize what they want must always remain unseen. The Baker’s Wife wishes that real life offered more epiphanic “moments of moment,” where “or” gives way to “and.”

The Baker’s Wife also understands that “if life were only [these] moments, then you’d never know you had one.” Wishing impels us out of our comfort zone and into a scary yet exciting in-between place. But “no one lives in the woods.” We come back, if we manage to come back, changed, with new knowledge and inspiration.

We take a similar journey when we enter the theatre and surrender to a world both real and pretend. Which is why, in the end, Into the Woods is a play about itself, and Amanda Dehnert doesn’t want us to forget that.

Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)