"Into the woods to bring some bread to Granny who is sick in bed. Never can tell what lies ahead, for all that I know, she's already dead." So sings "Little Red Riding Hood in "Into the Woods," a musical which takes two ancient mediums -- the fairy tale and the musical play -- and merges them into a sinister third entity.
In James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim's ghoulish fairy tale mashup Jack experiences sexual awakening at the far end of the beanstalk, Little Red encounters rape culture, and Cinderella and Rapunzel's Princes' eyes wander to "a beauty asleep" in a tower and a maiden in a glass casket with a "dwarf standing by."
The crude, cautionary violence of the Grimm's tales is on mocking display, tempered in this production by additions like selfie-snapping stepsisters. Dark humor lights the morally gloomy woods, and Sondheim's score and lyrics are aurally breathtaking and orally tricky (the lyrics are very verbose).
The journey into the inconstant, metaphorically resonant woods is grim in every sense, but the SF Playhouse production, with its ingenious set and local talents like the golden-voiced Monique Halfon and painfully funny Jeffrey Brian Adams is anything but. The Exhibitionist got a chance to chat backstage with Monique Halfon (Cinderella,) Corinne Proctor (Little Red Riding Hood,) and Louis Parnell (Narrator and Mystery Man,) and the director and co-founder of the Playhouse, Susi Damilano.
(It is the night of the San Francisco Playhouse production of "Into the Woods". Three actors, the director, and an unusually beautiful and talented young writer sit together in a small room abutting the theater. Throughout the interview, sound effects of a giant being blinded by a flock of birds play on a constant loop. The writer speaks first:)
Do you have dream theater roles?
(The actors appear affronted to have been asked such a personal question.)
Susi: Of course they do!
Monique: That's like naming a favorite child.
Susi: I mean come on, is there a Broadway role you'd turn down?
Corinne: I wouldn't do Bye Bye Birdie. You'd have to pay me a lot to be in that, I hate that show.
Monique: I would love to be in Light in the Piazza.
Susi: You'd be great.
Louie: I'm old enough to say that fortunately a lot of roles I've wanted, over the years I have been lucky enough to get. I guess one role I'd really, really, really want to play in a major production is Roy Cohn in "Angels in America". I understudied the role for a year and went on a number of times but I'd like to own it.
Do you have any audition horror stories you can share?
(All four burst into uproarious laughter followed by silence.)
Corinne: Tell the Japanese TV show story.
Monique: There's this television show that auditions in San Francisco and airs only in Japan, so the director speaks no English. You walk in, they don't speak English but they want you to talk, so you do this improve scene. Then the translator talks to the director in Japanese and you do the scene over and over again and they talk in a foreign language about you.
Susi: I got into this thinking I would be a musical theater singer, but I can't really sing. I thought I could learn it! But I went to an audition and they said "Sing something a capella," and so I did, and when I was done the director said, "That was brave."
(A collective 'oof' resounds)
Do you have pre- or post- show rituals?
Monique: I literally say a Hail Mary before I go onstage, because I'm terrified.
Louis: I have a little conversation with my muses.
Corinne: Well... I go to the White Horse and get drinks afterwards.
Is there anything you try to abstain from while you have a show in production? Alcohol? Drugs? Unscripted emotional outbursts?
Monique: I moderate my alcohol.
Corinne: Wait! I lied. I abstain from karaoke.
How would you explain Into the Woods to someone who isn't familiar with the show?
Susi: It's a beautiful twist on your classic fairytales.
Louis: I think the moral is, "Be careful what you wish for."
There's this craze for fairytale backstory right now -- "Wicked", "Maleficent", "Snow White and the Huntsman", how does "Into the Woods" fit in?
Corinne: I think it's interesting how cultural things go in and out. It wasn't that long ago that vampires were really in and now they're not anymore.
Susi: But I don't think fairytales will ever go away. Fairytales are global, like Cinderella -- the thinking is that it started in China, and every culture has some version of Cinderella, some version of Sleeping Beauty, some version of Little Red Riding Hood. What is heartening about them being popular is that they connect us to everyone. So society right now is looking for connection rather than bloodsucking death.
Without giving away the plot, ITTW has a unique gross-out and tragedy factor. Does that serve a purpose beyond shock-value?
Susi: Life is not happily ever after. Shit happens. People die.
(This statement is nodded into unanimity.)
Have you been following the controversy over the upcoming movie? (Comments by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim that some grittier aspects of the story have been removed in the Disneyfication.) What are your thoughts?
(At this point our audio recording of the interview becomes briefly indecipherable as actors speak over each other, shriek, and shifting around in their chairs.)
Susi: They started the controversy! (No one denies this.) I think Sondheim started it on purpose to get the public to go up against Disney because he couldn't.
(Vigorous nods by the actors confirm the belief that a plot is afoot.)
Corinne: (With passion) I won't believe they don't ruin it until I see it, so I'm looking forward to a hate-watch field trip. I think that some things are just not well suited to be film, and I think that this is not well suited to be film. Because it's about the magic of telling stories, it's important to be in the room for it.
Susi: One of the problems is that this particular thing is about the Grimm's fairytales, which are grim. Sondheim and Lapine are asking, "What happens after happily ever after?" which is even darker. Then to have Disney making a film -- Disney has taken every fairytale and brought them to utopia. The two don't go together.
From what we've heard, this production added an element that differentiates it from others -- something about a man who travels through time? Can you tell us about that?
Susi: I wouldn't call him a new character because he is technically in the show, He's the baker's baby. The baker's baby is now ten years old and asking his grandfather to tell him the story. By having him in it what I'm hoping to achieve is the highlight of the family circle and stories being told over and over from father to son and on and on from generation to generation.
SF Playhouse is located on the second floor of the Kensington Park Hotel. There's a couch in the elevator! You can take mobile naps! How does the space inform the performance or the direction of the show?
Susi: On late nights I can get a hotel room and stay! It doesn't really change much except it's a beautiful space.
Do you consider yourselves San Francisco artists?
(Nods and affirmative language.)
Other than the SF Playhouse, what are the best places to see theater in the Bay Area?
Monique: (Immediately.)The Berkely Rep.
Corinne: I just saw The Crucible at Custom Made, they do a lot of awesome work
Monique: "Sleeping Beauty"
Susi: I was going to say that too!
Louis: I've always been partial to "Cinderella"
Apparently the theater has a fitness-themed nickname?
Susi: We're the empathy gym! Bill [English, Susi's husband and the theater's artistic director] coined that, it's actually above the door when you leave in gold letters. It's the driving philosophy that we approach theater with. All over town you can see good theater, but our philosophy is that theater was created for mankind to get together and connect. I'm not a churchgoing person but this is my church, this is where I go to connect with people. Calling it an empathy gym -- Mother Teresa, Ghandi, these are the gold medal winners of empathy, the rest of us need to go to the gum. So we come to the theater where we can sit in the dark, be safe, and practice our skills of empathy and by being more empathetic we can change the world one play at a time.
OK last question: Each of the characters go into the woods to seek something -- a baby, a prince, eternal beauty -- what would you be seeking in the woods?
(All pause, thoughtfully.)
Monique: A sense of home.
Louis: (Quietly) Sense of security.
Susi: Wait a minute; you guys are being all nice! People go into the woods because they have wishes. I would go into the woods for recognition. I want that frickin' Tony award!
Louis: I mean, yeah, if we're going all the way I'd say like Susi I'd say "I wish for fame," but then again, going into the woods, you have to be careful what you wish for.
Monique: We've already learned our lesson.
Into the Woods plays at San Francisco Playhouse( 450 Post) until Sept. 6. Tickets are $20 and up.