Dueling Reviews

Into the Woods’ Nuclear Family Portrait Paints Female Desire as the Enemy

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Part of Into The Wood‘s enduring influence is its deconstruction of popular fairytales. Audiences are afforded an easy entrance into the world of the play through these timeless, universal stories. We can all identify the sly twists that Sondheim and Lapine impose on the tales, and we can appreciate the complexity they add to these classic characters. We can acknowledge that the purpose of the musical is to turn the fairytales on their heads, to subject them to the realities of love, loss, and strife. Cinderella and Prince Charming don’t live happily ever after, Little Red’s maturity comes at a cost, giants can kill innocent people, wishes have repercussions, and morals never come in neat, simple packages.

However, Into the Woods doesn’t free itself completely of the fairytale mythos: in a way, all stories engage with a discourse whether they realize it or not. The predominant discourse of Into the Woods surrounds the family. Nearly all of the characters are trying to redeem themselves of the judgments and weaknesses of their parents. Most central to the plot is the Witch’s curse on the Baker, making him impotent after his father steals beans from the Witch’s garden. Similarly, Cinderella must escape her stepmother’s tyranny, Rapunzel and Jack free themselves of equally domineering mothers, even the Witch herself is cursed by her mother.

Family is the driving force of conflict.  Wait. More accurately, controlling women are the driving force of conflict, for even the Baker’s father was urged on to steal by his pregnant wife’s “unusual appetite.” And family is also the driving force of the musical’s resolution. Wait. Actually, it’s a family without any controlling or desirous women, since they’re all dead. The ending restores the strong nuclear family structure that controlling women threatened with their desires: there’s the new father who has evolved into a masculine leader and head of household (Baker), the subservient housewife whose proclivity towards wishing has been quelled thanks to a wish gone wrong (Cinderella), and two orphaned children seeking a home (Little Red and Jack). By the end of the film, we’re still in a patriarchal fairytale. The Rob Marshall film underscores this with its closing image of the new nuclear family sitting down together in the woods, listening to the Baker narrate what we’ve just finished watching.

And clearly, it should be the Baker telling the story. Because it’s been his story all along– a story of a kind but emasculated man earning his manhood, first characterized by his ability to have children, then by his heroism and courage. He succeeds at overcoming the generational curse where the female characters don’t, because female desire leads them astray.

Look at the Baker’s wife. Even though she is not the barren one (the Witch makes it clear that the Baker is the one cursed with impotence), she leads the effort to battle the Witch’s curse. Her desire for a child trumps that of the Baker, and his timidity puts her in control of of the plan, which she repeatedly must defend to other characters (Baker, Prince, Cinderella) who ask her why she is alone in the woods. The men of the play hardly ever have to defend their actions to other characters, even when their actions are clearly wrong (like the Princes’ adultery or Jack’s stealing from the Giant). The men’s actions are never put on trial the same way the Witch’s or the Baker’s Wife’s actions are subject to judgment (“Maybe They’re Magic” and “Last Midnight”). The Baker’s Wife is the character who most often blurs the lines of morality, offering beans for Milky White, or pulling Rapunzel’s with the knowledge it might tumble her from out of the tower. Yet, it is her sense of action that furthers the story and the couple’s mission to have a child.  Compare her persistence and action-driven habits with Cinderella’s passivity and indecisiveness. One of these women takes on the role of wife and mother in the ending’s reformed and romanticized family dynamic. The other dies.

While the Baker’s Wife’s death could be interpreted as a random killing (“Your Fault” assumes that imposing logical blame for the death is useless), her death is immediately linked to her adultery and to her new Eve-like understanding of “Moments in the Woods.” Her affair with the Prince is only the last in a series of patriarchy-threatening actions that the Baker’s Wife commits (the others are tied to her role as emasculating leader and moral boundary-breaker). Her death silences her as a threat to the family structure. Plus, it occurs only after “Moments In the Woods” reaffirms her traditional role as loyal wife and mother. The song, meant to exhibit the purpose of and lessons learned in the woods, solidifies the traditional family structure by preaching that those “and” moments that transgress social and moral boundaries reinforce the “or” moments that force women into a dichotomy of good vs. bad, pure vs. slut, seeking to please vs. seeking to be pleased. The Baker’s Wife’s adultery only makes works to silence her desires and put her back in the home, back to lacking desire.

In other words, a woman who acts out her desires realizes that the only good to come from her desires is to passivize her into a non-desirous so as to not act on her desire any more. And then she dies for acting out her desires.

Now, before we start arguing about whether or not she actually died because of her desire, or whether gender actually has anything to do with any of this, let’s look at who else dies and who survives:

Jack, the young boy who is a thief and who inadvertently causes the death of a giant? Alive.

Rapunzel, the young woman who pursues her desire to wed a Prince and escape her mother? Dead.

The Princes, ridiculous and superficial idiots with no concern for their subjects? Alive.

The Witch, clearly the most powerful character who exacts revenge for a likely rape? Dead.

Mrs. Giant, seeking revenge for her dead husband? Dead.

Cinderella, a woman with no clear desires and who likes to clean? Alive.

Jack’s Mother, a demanding and unpleasing woman who hassles her ideal-prone son? Dead.

As much as the musical resists fairytale tropes and fairytale themes, it can’t seem to get away from the classic fairytale trope of “let’s punish a woman for acting in her own interest.”

Let’s talk a bit about the Witch. Witches are traditionally unfeminine figures, and from that they gains their power. She is historically considered to cause barrenness, and she is anti-family, unnatural, and the far opposite of maternal. The Witch in Into the Woods literally takes away the Baker’s manhood and she is the greatest threat to the nuclear family structure and the restoration of masculine leadership. Besides, she’s not the greatest mother to Rapunzel (understatement much).

Photo from Vanity Fair

What better way to neutralize a female threat (besides killing it) than to make it pretty and take away her powers! The Witch starts as a subject with power to an object of desire when she drinks Milky White’s potion, returning to her youthful beauty and losing her magic. Why her magic is lost is never really addressed in the show, but the fact that the loss is linked to her restored femininity insinuates a connection: power is unfeminine.

Now, you might say that we’re supposed to identify with the Witch. She’s actually good! She has the most emotional songs! We sympathize with her! She is the voice of truth in the play! This is only partly true. What does her truth, her experience bring to the play? She is reckless and cruel. Her emotions make her a bad mother and a threat until the very end, where she is all for giving Jack to the giantess. Her truth doesn’t actually reflect the realities of the play (her rape, for example is never explored) and she isn’t really ever right (children will listen). Her ‘truth’ doesn’t make her a heroic subject, she doesn’t lead the characters to victory*. It’s the Baker who leads the way to victory (by killing another threatening woman). It’s the Baker who restores order, order not being very high on the Witch’s list.

The moral of the story? Don’t give into the desires of troubled women. They don’t lead to much good.

*If you want to read a more thorough analysis of female desire in Into the Woods and have access to articles via some kind of academic library, look up “Back(lash) Into the Woods” by Peter C. Woods from Text and Presentation journal. It’s a wonderful, accessible read, and it adds way more context and evidence to these ideas. I used Woods’s article as a sounding board to better shape my own ideas, particularly about the Witch.



Under the Radar: LIFE AND TIMES

We round off our UTR coverage with the most unique and most ambitious play of the the 2013 lineup: Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times Marathon, a ten-hour play comprised of four episodes taken verbatim from one director’s phone call conversation with a cast member to recount her life story. And yes, it starts with day one.

Oh Dear Lord, these tracksuits.


Life and Times is truly a celebration of the everyday, mundane life. The first energetic, musical episode retracing the subject’s first 6 (ish) years of life, is just simply exuberant. It rejoices in the trivial details and reminiscences of childhood, whether it be the calming energy of a father, the tauntings of a brother, playing hooky from swim lessons, or a mean substitute teacher who causes one to wet one’s pants. What is it about one person’s personal, small experiences, which may seem so unimportant or too subjective to be inconsequential, that makes everyone suddenly moved to connect and remember their own memories, even if they are vastly different from those of the subject? It doesn’t make sense. But it happens in Life and Times. Never do you resentfully wish that someone with a more interesting life was interviewed, some kind of celebrity or something. Interesting is not at stake here. Neither is celebrity. We’re here to see the greatness, the adventure, in the everyday.

When we say verbatim, we mean verbatim. Every “um,” “erm,” “so,” “like,” etc. is reproduced, even emphasized at times. Sometimes an “um” is given its own note, harmony, and crescendo. It’s all part of the poetry of our subject’s (and our own) speech. It’s fantastic. I love my “ums” and “likes” now! In many ways, the marathon is also a case study in theatrical adaptation and conventions. I’d like to hear if some people felt like there were two voices in the piece- that of the woman on the phone generously telling her life story (imagined in our heads from reading the captions) and that of the artists. For me, the woman on the phone speaks quickly, nervously, a distance of years between her and her memories. The artists speak immediately, affectionately, deliberately, and slowly. The difference between the two illuminates what we do when do make a narrative out of someone’s real-life experiences.

I also endorse captioned performances like those in Life and Times for EVERY SHOW EVER becauseimnotagoodlistener

Episodes 1 and 2 are balanced in their joy and sincerity, striking a genuine chord with the audience. Episodes 3 and 4, on the other hand, are much messier (starkly different from the careful musical performances of 1 and 2). It feels a lot less fluid, a lot less reflective, and a lot more tedious. Yes, the “murder mystery” Agatha Christie-style shtick is fun and lends itself well to the subject’s more confessional teenage years. But the same plodding mood, the same melodramatic parodies for 2 and a half hours? Perhaps throw in some more genre-benders for 3 & 4, you know, instead of waiting for 5 and 6? Maybe some farce, some social manners, some Arthur Miller, some Harold Pinter, some Sam Beckett? You’ve got all of theater history to choose from.

Also, I hate to say this, but just because we’re taking the subject’s conversation verbatim doesn’t mean we must include ALL of it, or even do it chronologically. I could not wait to hear our subject’s memories on some more mature experiences-her first heartbreak, her first interview, maybe even her work as an artist. Alas, episode 4 ends at age 18.  Word on the street is that Nature Theater plans to make over a dozen episodes to bring forth all the pieces of their subject’s memories. Because editing is nowhere to be found on their mission statement.

Episodes 3 and 4. Where’s Poirot when you need him?


So um Life and Times attempts to capture the idiosyncrasies of, like, human speech… and turn oral storytelling into, um, a theatrical event.And it’s brilliant. UTR’s plays experiment with the idea of what theatre is and can be. This production is one of the main events of the Under the Radar Festival, and for good reason. Life and Times is huge both in length and in concept. The four episodes of Life and Times currently span about ten hours as a marathon (with more to come). And it’s mission to relate a telephone conversation to the audience–verbatim–is no easy task. The crafting of dialogue in the theatre is a language of its own. It has to establish the dramatic conflict  and drive the story.

At first, Life and Times doesn’t seem to have any narrative arc, as the novelty of the “real speech” takes time getting used to. The cast doesn’t shy away from the inconsistent vulgarities of human speech–they revel in them. But in those “mistakes” come brilliance. The hesitation before an embarrassing childhood memory. The nervous laughter hiding the fear of an abusive father. The unexpected interruptions where she wonders–and we all wonder–if our stories are actually worth being told.The constant musicality of Episodes 1 and 2 were welcome, as they help give the narrative an emotional life. I was also taken with the “anti-choreography” of awkward limbs and grace-less plies that illustrated everything from solitude to sexual desire. Episodes 3 and 4 can use more development, as the English cozy mystery genre sometimes muted the actors’ performances.

Life and Times was my first experience with marathon theatre, and it was a fun one. The intermissions were accompanied by a dinner and dessert break (featuring awesome salted brownies). It made me think of the possibilities of theatre being an all-day event, where the audience could respond even more to the stories brought to them. I also wondered if the company members could utilize those intermissions in a more creative way, particularly with the ensemble members. Even after almost half-a-day of Life and Times, I still wanted more, and I look forward to future episodes, wacky genres, and “ums.”

To be continued…

EVITA on Broadway

We here at LMezz made sure to catch one of last year’s biggest hits at the Marquis before it closes in (gasp) two weeks.  Some thoughts:


I’ve forgotten how gorgeous Broadway musicals can be. The sets in this production, directed by Brit big shot Michael Grandage, are just breathtaking. I couldn’t stop admiring all their details and realisms. Same goes for the costumes. I was also a big fan of the choreography, by Rob Ashford. I was happy to see that the energy and novelty of dance routine I caught a small glimpse of during their TONY awards presentation was consistent throughout. The performances were also excellent (but why is Michael Cerveris the only one with an accent? hmph) even though we caught Christina DeCiccio, and not Elena Roger, in the title role.

My only quip though is that I couldn’t get much of a storyline out of it. I left the theater feeling like I hadn’t learned much else about Evita than the bare basics I already knew: the she was an actress who married a dictator and then she was a national darling and then she died. If you were to ask me anything more specific– What were her policies? What were her husband’s policies? Why did she die? Did she actually care about the people? Or was it all a shtick?– I would give a gloomy “I don’t know.” And while I appreciate Che’s feeble attempt to expose Evita for who she really was… I still don’t know who she really was.

Maybe a closer listen to the soundtrack will resolve some of these issues. But overall, having just experienced that odd feeling that I just saw a glorious show and I still don’t know what it’s about, my dominant thoughts were, Damn, I have a lot of homework to do.


Before I start, I do want to confess that I am not the biggest Andrew Lloyd Webber fan and enjoy Love Never Dies expressly to mock it (and ogle Ramin Karimloo).
No, you sing.
Now back to Evita. I was really impressed by the actors’ performances. Michael Cerveris is a reliable Perón, and Ricky Martin shows a lot of voice and charisma as Che. Christina DeCicco as the titular Evita has a spitfire energy and pipes to match, though I wonder if she could have brought more of an emotional stake to “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.”

One pet peeve of mine involved the accents from the ensemble. When they sang in Spanish, they sounded more like a boys’ choir than anything remotely Argentinian. When Broadway productions go through so many efforts to replicate anything from Australian to German to Irish, it amazes me when that care isn’t equally taken to a language that in this city is easily heard at your local grocery store.

Another cringe-worthy moment was any part of Webber’s score that goes into “rock ‘n’ roll” mode. It might be just the arrangement, but it sounds so dated. I noticed a similar dated sound in last season’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.

The biggest question in my mind though was: What is Evita’s purpose?  Grandage’s additions of historical footage and actual portraits of Eva and Juan made it seem like a biography of Eva Perón, which doesn’t quite match the show’s sensibilities. Also, the characters never have a narrative arc or learn anything. Che is still frustrated, and Eva remains insistent that she did right by her country in the song “Lament.” The show has too much rock ‘n’ roll spectacle and not enough dramatic storytelling.

But if your main reason to see the Evita revival was to see Ricky Martin living la vida loca, then you get your money’s worth. Here’s hoping that he’ll appear in something better if he continues to make forays on Broadway.

Drood Times Two @ Studio 54

The ladies of LMezz were so intent on solving The Mystery of Edwin Drood they went on two different nights. Here are our reports, including alternate endings, crazy amazing belting, and much much more!


I saw Drood on a cold Thursday night. While the energy in the cast (and audience) was under the weather (ha!) it was a jolly good show. The audience elected Princess Puffer as the killer and set up Helena Landless with Durdles: their duet was simply hilarious. I absolutely loved the Clue-esque ending, with the murder outcomes illustrated by the shadows of actors behind a scrim. Another delight included the 19th century costumes, designed by William Ivey Long. (Seriously. I’ve never gotten so much shoe/stocking envy until I saw the women ensemble’s color coded boots. So pretty!)

Finally, I am all about the female performances of this cast. I got to see Chita Rivera. Singing. On a Broadway stage. Betsy Wolfe’s performance as Rosa Bud was plucky and such fun. And Drood has made me obsessed with Stephanie J. Block. Obsessed!


Drood sounds like my kind of show. A Victorian-set comedy with a play-within-a-play structure with enormous amounts of audience participation. Sounds like my theater dream come true. The actual show though is less thrilling. While the performances were great (Who knew Smash’s Will Chase was such a ham?) and the costumes and scenery were extreme eye candy, it never really amounts to much more than cute. There’s a plot and a lot of fun, weird characters, but they remain stock characters without much motivation or dilemma. I actually enjoyed the songs, but they all felt out of place– either much darker or much too complex than their surroundings. The songs would have worked perfectly in a much more nuanced show or under better direction. And I have never seen an audience more mellow during intermission.

When it came time to pick the murderer, my sister (who came with me) and I really couldn’t care less. We picked the parson because we thought he’d have the most complicated motivation in killing Drood. The rest of the audience probably had the same idea because the parson won the vote. Too bad there wasn’t any more motivation than we might have guessed using the scant information we already had on him.

On our way home, my sister asked me, Maybe it would have worked if it wasn’t a play within a play? If they weren’t introducing each actor’s entrance and so on…? I said, But those were the best parts! It was all the murky, mucky stuff in between that bored me!

Maybe Drood’s lack of energy comes from the show trying to be two things at the same time. On the one hand, it’s trying to be self-aware and meta-theatrical. If a show goes that route, it’s entering into an agreement to abandon realism. The comedy of the show also stems from it’s awareness of theatrical conventions. It’s why the comedy in other self-aware shows like Peter and the Starcatcher or The 39 Steps work so spectacularly well. If you’re going to expose the show’s artificiality, you can’t really expect audiences to get swept up in plot and characters so instead, you work with wit, conventions, and perhaps a complexity of ideas.

Drood, however tries to be both this AND realist. It’s play within a play has both a fake play (Drood) and a real one (Music Hall). The cast tries to make its Music Hall Venue as realist as possible, even having the 1895-minded actors mingle with the audience before the show. At the same time, the fake play, Drood, also tries to be too realist, with its hyper-sets and costumes, its misplaced, darkly emotional songs, all of which are supposed to sweep us away into the story. Thing is, we can’t be in the London Music Hall and Cloisterham at the same time. Well, maybe we can, given a funnier, better production?

Sara and Kate see Shame… with the lights on.

Presenting our first Dueling Review in Letters From the Mezzanine, in which Sara and Kate discuss Steve McQueen’s film Shame.
Sara:  So, we got to see Shame–in the same room, same time. Go figure.

Kate:  We also got to fulfill a lifelong dream: watching Michael Fassbender portray a sex addict.

Sara: I wouldn’t call it a lifelong dream, particularly after my sisters and I rented Young Adam with the sole purpose of seeing Ewan McGregor naked.

Kate:  How was that?

Sara:  I closed my eyes during the naked scene.

Kate:  WHY?!

Sara:  I don’t know. I didn’t want to corrupt my virgin mind. Anyways, Shame… what did you think? Oh wait, should we do a summary or something?

Kate:  Why not? In Shame, Brandon (Fassbender) is a successful businessman in New York.

Sara:  And his computer is chock full of porn. Correction: his work computer. Full to the brim. Brimming with tiddles. And then his weird sister (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him. We get the impression she’s got man troubles.

Kate:  They’re both troubled… Shame had some great cinematography. The scene where Sissy and Brandon are talking on the sofa was just gorgeously framed.

Sara:  The jogging scene was great too.

Kate:  I also could feel the tension during the alternating shots between Brandon and the woman on the train. (Side note: that looked way too dirty to be a modern-day subway car, it looks like McQueen was taking his design cues from The Warriors.) But there was too much style and not enough substance. We hardly get any information on Brandon and Sissy–where they’re from, their family life, etc. No clue to why their relationship is the way it is, and how that plays into Brandon’s sex addiction.

Sara: Yeah, its hard to figure out what exactly you’re supposed to be looking out for besides nudity. I think I was able to find my way through it though. There’s this article by George Simmel called “The Metropolis and Mental Life” and it’s all about how the industrialization of cities has made people distant from one another. The argument is basically that because the city throws so much mental information at us at all times, we’re all kind of in a state of shock and can’t handle personal relationships or lend people any importance. And that’s what makes city folks so blase and arrogant.  We try to hide that vulnerability and not make lasting relationships. This essay was written like 70 years ago, but it’s still relevant, I believe. So, back to Shame. I think Brandon is the prototype of a city male trying to get over this vulnerability, and the film has a lot of focus on NYC–It’s more than just a backdrop. It’s more than just a backdrop. It’s like the other main character. More so than the sister. And there’s that scene towards the end with the train evacuation. It looks like there’s a murder or something at the station, but everyone just shuffles past. I think that made me connect everything altogether.

Kate:  That totally reminds me of the scene where Brandon takes his coworker (who he went on a date with) to a loft for an ‘extended’ lunch break and as they attempt to hook up, the loft has giant windows looking out into the city. And when he’s unable to perform, it’s because the person he’s making a sexual connection he also had made a brief emotional connection beforehand.

Sara: Yeah, but the windows on the city is a great connection too. I didn’t think of that–like the city is looking in on them.

Kate:  Kinky.

Sara:  Or they’re surrounded, not private.

Kate:  The audience also kind of is a voyeur then. But a detached one.

Sara: So, overall what did you think?

Kate:  So while I was fascinated by the frank depiction of Brandon’s battle with sex addiction, Shame left me feeling quite a bit cold–which may have been its intention, after all.

Sara: And I will never enjoy listening to “New York, New York” ever again.

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