True grief does not often make it to our stages. Dramatists might romanticize it with keening, sobbing, or chest-stabbing, but the real, nasty thick of bereavement simply defies dramatization. For how long can you let audience members stew in a character's gnawing emptiness before they need plot development, however contrived that might feel?
For playwright Frances Cha-Yu Cowhig of 410[Gone], a world premiere now at Crowded Fire, the answer is: most of her play — a bold if ultimately unsuccessful dramatic course to chart.
Mourning does not become Twenty-One (Cindy Im). Her grief for her dead brother Seventeen (Chris Cortez) is raw, obsessive, and downright embarrassing: "When I wear your reading glasses, I see new things," she says, quarantining herself in Seventeen's Star Wars-curtained closet, where he committed suicide and where she has erected a shrine. "I eat your last meal every night."
Twenty-One seeks answers and closure. Why did Seventeen leave her, when she loved him so much, too much? And through what ritual can she honor him and ensure his safety in the next life? In her world, all the answers come from AP Calculus. But through sleuthing, capricious quantitative reasoning, and passion that borders on the erotic, she reaches the Goddess of Mercy (Charisse Loriaux) and the Monkey King (Alexander M. Lydon). Inspired by actual Buddhist myth, they are, in Cowhig's rendering, middlemen in "the Chinese Land of the Dead," dispensing lackluster advice ("Eat soup") to suicidal callers from the land of the living, and somehow processing dead souls through Dance Dance Revolution. More often, however, they terrorize one another, a shadow sister-brother pair. The Goddess has the power to make the Monkey King freeze in place and writhe in pain. But, a true little brother in Lydon's richly clownish portrayal, the Monkey King kind of likes it.
Cowhig's idea to repurpose religious myth into a contemporary mourning ritual has a lot of potential, particularly when, at the end of the play, characters both alive and dead see one another anew and, through parting, grow up a little. But on the way there, she overstuffs with her play with too many rules — Why do the deities have to "digitize" souls? — and steeps us too deeply in Twenty-One's grief; she is less character than embodied feeling, or doormat.
Into the Woods, now in a Ray of Light production, also moves its characters toward adulthood along unlikely paths. Characters in this musical, from a book by James Lapine, and with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, hail from various Grimms' fairy tales: Cinderella (Courtney Merrell), Jack (Kyle Stoner) and the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood (Allison Meneley), to name a few. They are accompanied by a medley of princes, step-relatives, witches, wolves, and giants, all played by an 18-person ensemble whose very diversity of physiques brings fairyland to life.
Lapine and Sondheim use the idea of the woods to thread the disparate stories together. It's where characters go to pursue their quests, but it's also where the rules of everyday life break down, where a mysterious elfin creature or a sexy prince can wreak havoc on their plans. It's a place of both excitement and dread, much like Grimm fairy tales themselves, and which is reflected in Annie Dauber's set, whose leaf-spangled ceiling feels magical until it recedes into eerie darkness upstage.
The first act ends happily ever after; only Sondheim's music, which, as ever, is somehow dissonant while also being warm and catchy, forebodes that "ever after" will last only as long as a song. (Music director David Möschler eloquently communicates this menace.) Act II is where the real story takes place, where wanderlust and dissatisfaction and any number of human flaws pull characters away from safety and back to their sylvan chaos. These flaws turn them into adults; adults who now make difficult choices, who lose things and people they love, and who don't end up as good or as bad as they started.
The manifold character arcs mean that it takes a long time to reach this poignant lesson, and director Eliza Leoni draws variable performances from her copious cast. Standouts, however, are Michelle Jasso, whose cackle as the Witch is part-Margaret Hamilton, part-Jewish mother, and part-Brunhilde; and David Naughton as a prince so charming he can make you see it's really best for everyone if he loves you then leaves you.
In fairyland, as in real life, adulthood is not an equal-opportunity employer.