According to psychologists who studied folklore, like Carl Jung and Bruno Bettelheim, the woods in fairy tales symbolize the unconscious: a place where we each can confront the darker sides of our nature that we don’t want to expose to the eyes of society. A character in a story who dares to plunge into the woods inevitably comes out transformed – if he or she comes out at all.
Hence the title of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s multi-Tony Award-winning 1986 stage play Into the Woods, inspired in part by Bettelheim’s influential 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. A musical but hardly a comedy (though not devoid of humor), Into the Woods starts off intertwining bits of what we already know about a pack of characters from the folk narratives collected by the Brothers Grimm, notably Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack. By the end of Act I, each has had a wish fulfilled; but later, in Act II, we discover that none of them is living happily ever after, and a return to the woods becomes necessary – sometimes with disastrous outcomes.
The brilliance of the show’s concept is its embrace of the darkness implicit in what we habitually think of as primarily children’s stories, even though a lot of them are downright gruesome. In a fairy tale, Bettelheim suggested, a child’s mind can safely grapple, in an abstracted sort of way, with life’s starker realities, like the death of a loved one or the consequences of bad parenting. Betrayal, manipulation, lies and revenge all burble to the surface of consciousness in Act II, with the Witch – ostensibly the embodiment of evil at the outset – turning out to be the only character who’s being straightforward.
It’s not a facile, feel-good play filled with happy, bouncy songs; but the subject matter is well-suited to Sondheim’s minor-key worldview, largely shaped by his own personal experiences of toxic parenting and enforced solitude. And the songs are just plain gorgeous. If you’re brave enough to venture into the slightly scary forests of the unconscious yourself, you might want to check out the Centerstage production of Into the Woods opening this Friday, January 24 and running through February 9 at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck.
Kevin Archambault, who calls it “a very layered show about getting what you wish for and what happens after the happily ever after,” is the director, with musical direction by Paul and JoAnne Schubert. The large cast features AnnChris Warren as the Witch, Bill Ross as the Baker, Molly Parker-Myers as the Baker’s Wife, Elizabeth Thomas as Cinderella, Wendell Scherer as Jack, Victoria Howland as Jack’s Mother, Olivia Michaels as Little Red Riding Hood and David Foster as the Narrator.
The curtain rises at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, with Sunday matinées beginning at 3 p.m. Tickets for Into the Woods cost $26 for adults and $24 for seniors and (older) children and can be ordered by visiting www.centerforperformingarts.org or by calling the box office at (845) 876-3080. Box office hours are from 12 noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
Into the Woods, Fridays/Saturdays, January 24, 25 & 31, February 1, 7 & 8, 8 p.m., Sundays, January 26, February 2 & 9, 3 p.m., $26/$24, Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck, 661 Route 308, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-3080, www.centerforperformingarts.org.