'Into the Woods' challenges us to break the curse in our own lives

by Ryan Zhang | 2/28/19 2:40am


Having fully immersed myself into “Into the Woods,” I find it rather difficult to express what I felt and thought. It is a meticulous and impressive production carried out by the theater department at Dartmouth, and it is a lot more than a musical out of which one walks and exclaims, “I enjoyed it and will carry on with my life without thinking about it for another second.” The lesson it attempts to deliver provokes much thought about not only the story itself but also our very own lives and this world. Before explaining why that is, let’s first take a look at the story and the amazing production.

First performed in 1986 and based on the novel “Into the Woods” by James Lapine, the musical unites four classic fairy tales, namely “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” into one story by inserting a brand new storyline. In the story, a baker (Owen O’Leary ’19) and his wife (Stephanie Everett ’19), are told by a witch (Brooke Goldner ’19), that in order to break their curse, they need to collect four items from four characters from each of the previously mentioned tales. The baker family’s desire to break the curse leads it into the woods, where time and space are distorted and all stories converge into one. 

Unlike an old fashioned fairy tale that begets a happy ending for everyone, this modern fairy tale’s sole purpose is to shatter this illusion. Act 1, which was a happy ending, only provides Act 2 with the foundation to add the chaotic element into the story. With a certain principle of realism and empiricism, the story educates the audience that in reality, there is really no perfect “happily ever after.” Even the seemingly perfect ending is followed by the last line: “I wish.” Such chaotic pessimism defines the story: the woods symbolize a mysteriously potent force that dictates the characters’ courses of action. Obviously, it alludes to either fate or an overpowering social force in reality ­­— all of us are characters who are inevitably under the influence of the woods or anything alike. The woods to some extent connect the fairy tale with the reality, as it creates a path for the audience to witness the reflection of our daily struggles and imperfection in the story.

The profound message is aided by highly detailed theatrical scenery. As the story starts to unfold, sounds of raining follow, and I noticed that even the window at the very back of the stage accordingly reflects subtle movement of rain drops. Guhui Zhang ’22 who is part of the production team, said that the production was done with great attention to detail. The majority of the musical’s sound effects were live.

“The sound of the giant’s footsteps was imitated by bass drums, while the milking sound of Milky White was a result of two sand blocks,” said Zhang.

Concerning creative elements infused in the musical, Guhui pointed out several innovations the team made on the basis of the original musical. For one, the narrator was given a new identity — the granddaughter of the baker, which makes the setting of the musical, an attic, plausible. Instead of in the forest, this musical was set in an attic, where the story develops through the narrator’s recount of the old familial memories. 

“Act 2 of ‘Into the Woods,’ in my opinion, symbolizes the destruction of the society altogether with its social order and contracts and then, their reconstruction,” Xingzhi Guo ’22 said. “The specific scene that took place right before the slaughter of the giant presents the characters’ severing of their previous ties to the destroyed society, along with the people and its memories.” 

Indeed, the implications of this musical are much more profound than just a restructured modern fairy tale.

What struck me as perplexing at first was the plot development’s seeming abruptness and incoherence between the characters’ own thoughts. Choices made by the characters, especially those in Act 2, are not understandable at first glance. After losing his loved one, the baker seems to lack a proper grief; Jack, played by Edward Lu ’21, did not grieve much over the death of his mother, played by Rachel Webb ’19; and the adultery committed by the baker’s wife and Cinderella’s prince, played by Zachary Gottschall ’20, came simply out of nowhere. On second thought, a unified theme unveils: the insurmountable absurdity of the world. Act 2 embodies the unpredictable nature of the world in which we dwell. In this cruel reality, there rarely exists perfect marriages. Instead, the real world is full of lies and broken hearts. As humans move into this modern society where profits and practical interests prevail, we have deviated away from the values and truth we once held dear. Maybe this musical could make us re-evaluate if our own lives have undergone such social chaos.