A moment in the “Woods”

Jake Stepansky '17 jumps into the theatrical playground as director for the HRDC production of Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods.

By Isa Flores-Jones ‘19

The stories are the same as ever. There are the glass slippers, the wolf who wants the little girl, the damsel in the tower and the wicked witch who won’t let her down. This time, though, the fairytales are coming out of the woods.

For two nights, Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club is bringing Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Into the Woods on Dec. 8 and 9 to the Oberon, the smaller performance venue of American Repertory Theater. Known for an ongoing run of The Donkey Show, Diane Paulus’ Shakespearian disco dance party, Oberon is an unusual venue for a Sondheim-sized musical. That hasn’t fazed director Jake Stepansky ’17. This is, after all, his second creative effort at Oberon. In 2015, he directed a popular production of Avenue Q.  For Into the Woods, he has gone to great lengths to collapse the distance between performers and audience members. Days from opening – the first night is already sold out – Stepansky is confident about how the show is shaping up.

Jake Stepansky '17 leads the rehearsal with the cast of "Into the Woods" at Oberon. Photo: Isa Flores-Jones '19
Unstacking a chair, repositioning a table, he speaks while moving: “No question, it has been exciting to work in the space.”

It’s a particularly unusual space for theater. In lieu of the traditional seats of the audience, the Oberon provides what is essentially a dance floor. At one end of the room is a bar. The other end is the stage. The room is ringed by scaffolding and an elevated walkway.

Halfway through a rehearsal, the princes –  Richard Feder ‘18 and Jake Corvino ’19 – leap onto the bar, arms flung wide, their reflections mirrored in the glass behind them. Across the room is the stage, big enough to hold a mid-sized band, but definitely not big enough for the cast as well. In the course of two hours, the 12 cast members fall, faint, vault, climb and leap on- and offstage. Dodging tables and scaling ladders, the performers make it occasionally difficult to tell where the scene ends and the audience begins.

For Stepansky, this is the goal: “There are a set of characters – the Baker, the Baker’s Wife, Little Red, Jack and Cinderella – who are fully immersed in the story world. Like children dropped off at a playground, they see the props and set items and imagine them to be greater than they are.”

As the play progresses, however, these same characters come to recognize the artifice of the play for what it is.

Cole Edick ’17, who plays the Narrator, talks about breaking the fourth wall: “The Narrator is a kind of ringleader. In this production, there are two sets of characters. There are the ones who don’t know they’re acting within a play. And the ensemble, the ones who get to watch the action., the ones that are awake. The Narrator is awake, too.” I ask him to elaborate. “Well, one group of characters – the ensemble – looks around at Oberon and sees the theater. The other group looks around and sees the woods.”

It’s hard to envision the scattered tables of the Oberon as a forest. But Eliza Blair Mantz ‘17, who plays the Baker’s Wife, says believing is seeing: “I spent a lot of time working on my interaction with the space. I have a kind of an interesting part, because the baker’s wife joins the ensemble in the last part of the play. So she starts out seeing the forest but ends as one of the meta-characters in the second act. ”

Into the Woods is known for this second-act switch up. Performed alone, the first act delivers only happy endings: The princes find their princesses, Jack finds his golden goose, the baker cares for his baby. But Mantz notes that in the second act “things fall apart and things get darker. The ensemble changes. They go from being characters to being their own people, having their own experiences, and they invite the audience along with them. How do you go from having no control in your life, to full control?”

There’s no way of knowing but to step off the path and into the woods.

For more information about Into the Woods, which runs Dec. 8 and 9 at Oberon, click here.