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The Perfect Potion

ISF's magical musical slays more than giants

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It's early evening and disheartened couples are lugging artfully packed picnics back to their cars. The woman behind the ticket window at Idaho Shakespeare Festival mouths the words "sold out" apologetically to those seeking last-minute seats for the opening night performance of Into the Woods. Inside the amphitheater, the lawn is a sea of gauzy summer garments with nary a patch of green to be found. Extended knees and errant elbows run a high risk of landing in a plate of baked brie or spilling a sweat-beaded bottle of fume blanc.

But despite the chaos, a certain boisterous excitement chatters through the crowd. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods is the most lighthearted of the three plays that have opened at ISF this season and it is the summer's only musical. Set "long ago and far away," the play is a mash-up of some of the most familiar fairy tales: Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood.

Jeff Herrmann's whimsical set design fits the theme beautifully. Knotty trees loom over the stage with an array of grimacing expressions. The bellies of their trunks open to reveal three little kitchens, their shelves stocked with random trinkets. As the play progresses, the trees are spun around to reveal alternate sets, like Rapunzel's castle.

Before the proverbial curtain rises, Tom Willmorth and Joe Golden start their greenshow in typical form, bumbling on stage in lederhosen, knee-high baseball socks and Chuck Taylor All-Stars. In accents that stray from German to Czech, they poke fun at all the usual political suspects. After they've had their fill of pilfered snacks and booze from an array of audience members, the main act begins with a bang.

The prologue spotlights the show's three interweaving plot lines in a chorus that corrals the entire cast onstage. From Cinderella (Emily Krieger) dreaming of the ball, to Jack (Tim Fry) aching to keep his sickly pet cow, to the baker and his wife (Tom Ford and Jodi Dominick) desperately wanting a child, each character longs for something just out of reach. With an arching back and crooked nose, the witch cackles onstage with a proposition for the baker and his wife: obtain a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, and the infertility spell she's cast on the couple will be lifted.

The witch, played by Jessica Cope, is one of Into the Woods' most beguiling characters. She's sharp, sassy and direct, marching the baker and his wife off into the woods to do her bidding. While explaining why the couple has been cursed, Cope breaks into a hilarious rap about the baker's father pilfering her garden:

"He was robbing me / Raping me / Rooting through my rutabaga / Raiding my arugula / and Ripping up the rampion."

All of the play's main characters now have an established quest that draws them into the woods—a metaphorical locality representing danger and change. Cinderella sets off in search of the prince's festival. Jack, at his mother's insistence, must sell his milk-less cow, and Little Red Riding Hood (Erin Childs) skips off to find grandma's house with a basket full of pastries. By the end of Act 1, all of the play's characters have found their "happily ever after." But as Act 2 opens, it's apparent that the fairy tale dream is over.

At its heart, Into the Woods is a play about kids growing up without the permission of their coddling parents. Drawing on the modern feminist interpretation of the fable, Little Red Riding Hood is accosted by a lecherous, leather-jacket-clad wolf (Derrick Cobey) who pelvic-thrusts his way across the stage. Jack, after exchanging his cow for magic beans from the baker, finds himself stealing gold from the giant at the top of the beanstalk. Though Charlotte Yetman's costuming has Jack and Red Riding Hood decked out in a rebellious Mohawk and striped leggings, it's clear that they are still children inside, seeking real-world guidance.

"There's a disservice that we do when we Disney-fy and soften what, in their original stories, can be brutal and pretty bloody and scary," notes Lynn Allison, the actress who plays Jack's mother.

Though Allison's character and Rapunzel's mother, the witch, try desperately to "keep their children, children," they end up being punished for their attempts to prolong an unattainable fantasy. As the dead giant's wife ravages their kingdom, killing off most of the play's cast, the remaining characters are forced to reassess what constitutes a happy ending. Like Idaho Shakespeare Festival's other plays this summer, Into the Woods has a sinister side that lurks in the rafters. But unlike the others, this one's a glittery, choreographed musical. And who can resist that?

Info at www.idahoshakespeare.org.