The tale of 'Into the Woods' (music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine) is well known in today’s culture largely because of the recent movie production. Instead of taking it back to basics, however, Writers Theatre has taken an offbeat approach in many respects which brings a newness to the production. Gary Griffith has made some directing choices that are well played out by a talented cast and make this piece fresh instead of time worn.
Writers Theatre has transformed their space into a theatre in the round for the set design of this magnificent production and their efforts pay off. The length and complexity of this piece can be daunting and one way they have effectively used to draw in the audience is to create an intimacy of the story through use of the space. In addition, the staging of this story in the round keeps the audience a bit off balance because of the unexpected non traditional and spontaneous nature of its presentation.
Aside from the presentation in the round, the scenic design by Scott Davis is avante garde with almost a modern repurposing of materials evocative of a beautifully designed Anthropologie display and this, in conjunction with the beautiful and haunting lighting design of Lee Fiskness creates an eerie backdrop for the show. Even at intermission there are nuances of the design of this space that continue to reveal themselves.
In particular, the tree on the set is ever present and makes the audience feel like they are in a magical forest with a modern spin. The design team cannot be lauded without mentioning the costumer, Mara Blumenfeld, who should win an award solely for her costume designs of the stepsisters and Milky White.
The well known tale follows a plethora of protagonists through a journey in Act I. Each actor was well cast but particular stand outs include the Baker played with tremendous credibility by Michael Mahler, his wife played and sung beautifully by Brianna Borger and the witch (Bethany Thomas) who pulled off a modern type of sass usually reserved for more contemporary pieces with great aplomb. The choice to cast an actress as Milky White brought a refreshing comedic tongue in cheek spin and was well played by Mary Poole.
Music and lyrics by Sondheim are not for the faint of heart and this production did them justice. The additional stand out was the acting and directing choices of Act II which really brought some modernist twists into thoughts about collaboration, working as a team and seeing who emerges as leader in a group where there is no appointed lead. Thought provoking, timely and applicable to the modern workforce where this is encouraged.
This beautiful theatre is easily accessed by car or even a short Metra ride from the city where one can walk to the theatre. Well worth the journey.
'Into the Woods' is playing at Writers Theatre in Glencoe through Sept. 22.
• Mary Beth Euker is a founding director of Cricket Theatre Company in Lake Zurich, Illinois, has appeared in shows at Devonshire Theatre in Skokie and Woodstock Opera House and directs at Lake Zurich Middle School North.