In Fiasco Theater’s reimagined staging of Into the Woods the cast has been reduced to 11—which includes a pianist. The Narrator has been eliminated. The set looks like it’s made of old, reclaimed objects, which it essentially is. And the result, critics say, is a revelatory exploration of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s classic musical about growth and self-discovery, about wishes and their aftermath.
An ensemble theatre company created by graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. acting program, Fiasco describes itself as an “actor-driven” troupe that believes “the performer, the text and the audience are the only elements required to make great theatre.” They’re not averse to scenic and costume design but, says Noah Brody, who co-directed Into the Woods with Ben Steinfeld, “With each of our productions, we give ourselves anything we need to tell the story, but only those things.”
The production, now in the midst of a national tour, proved to be a journey of discovery for the ensemble as well as the audience. Most of the actors play more than one role, all very deliberately chosen. “It lends an interesting dimension to the storytelling,” says Brody. “For instance, the actor who plays Jack also plays the Steward. So when Jack pledges to kill the Steward for killing his mother, it means that the actor is talking about himself. The audience gets it, and never laughs at the idea. They get the resonance of a person representing multiple sides of an argument.”
The narration is now shared by the ensemble. “They’re the storytellers,” says Brody. “The entire company is onstage the whole time. When they’re not in a scene they’re adding to the musical texture by playing instruments. They’re all contributing to the fabric of the storytelling all the time.”
Derek McLane’s set was inspired by the idea of inheritances—and a piano. “For us, the show is really about inheritances,” says Brody, “which each of us lives with in our own lives. So we asked ourselves, ‘What does it mean to have inheritances? Where could those things live?’ We started talking about a metaphorical space, the memory attic—a non-realistic place full of those inheritances: objects, ideas, curses, expectations, family stories. We thought, ‘Can we fashion a kit that would allow us to tell the story where objects in a memory attic could live?’ And we started to populate it with boxes and paintings and broomsticks and a hobby horse and a bunch of yarn.
“We also knew that a piano was going to be at the center of the production. How do we integrate a piano into that space? After seeing a video of pianos being destroyed, Derek thought, ‘Maybe this environment happens inside the piano.’ The back wall looks like huge-scale piano strings; they are our woods. It’s an associative space where music and inheritance and memory live or co-exist.”
Both Sondheim and Lapine are champions of the production. “I think it’s their advocacy that led to its success,” says Brody. “And it’s been one of the great gifts of the show to get to have a relationship with them, just a dream come true.”