NEW YORK — In a rehearsal hall in midtown Manhattan, the actors playing the fairy-tale characters of “Into the Woods” — those still standing, anyway, after a vengeful giant ravages their land — have just finished a run-through of “No One Is Alone,” one of the most touching numbers in the 1987 Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical. And the vast room, filled with ladders and pianos and cellos and assorted props, has fallen silent.
“It’s hard to believe this is as new as it is for everybody,” Ben Steinfeld, one of the co-directors, tells the cast. “It’s a rich, complicated moment of teaching and learning,” the other director, Noah Brody, chimes in.
Immediately, Steinfeld expands on Brody’s train of thought: “It’s amazing to be standing behind difficulty, rather than obviousness,” he explains, of the musical’s adult approach to a world of make-believe. “The moral of the story is: ‘It’s complicated.’ ”
The interplay of simplicity and complexity is a theatrical dynamic that Steinfeld and Brody understand well, thanks to the years they’ve put in as two of the leaders of Fiasco Theater, a small, scrappy New York-based troupe best known for its bare-bones, textually astute stagings of the thornier plays of Shakespeare: In 2014, while visiting Washington’s Folger Theatre, the company, consisting initially of actors who met while undergraduates at Brown University, unveiled a sleek and charming “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” that won additional plaudits after it moved to off-Broadway.
Now, back to the nation’s capital Fiasco comes, with a bold expansion plan that will test the elasticity of the group’s aesthetic and help determine whether the organization has the mettle to evolve and grow. Uncustomarily, the roles in this “Into the Woods” — which Fiasco debuted three years ago at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre — have been recast with actors with no prior experience with the company. And even more daringly, the show, with commercial backing, is going on tour.
That a heavyweight institution like the Kennedy Center has booked Fiasco’s “Woods” into its 1,164-seat Eisenhower Theater for a month-long run that begins Tuesday — in a prime Christmastime slot, no less — speaks to the respect the industry has developed in short order for the seven-year-old group, as well as the mounting stakes for a company whose productions often look as though they’ve been assembled from stuff that was sitting in parents’ attics.
“I think it matters to a lot of people in our field that we’ve been successful doing this,” Steinfeld says. “It’s amazing the number of people who are pulling for us.”
Customers for this “Into the Woods” may initially be a little taken aback at what they gaze upon on the stage of the Eisenhower: Normally, a touring musical arrives at the Kennedy Center, often a byproduct of a long-running Broadway hit, as a quasi-military operation, with massive sets, a ton of sound equipment and a small army of actors. Fiasco arrives as a far tauter outfit. The cast, whose members double as the show’s musicians, numbers a compact 11, and the entire production, with its everyday props, is transported from place to place on two trucks. The emphasis is on an elegant human-scale type of conjuring, rather than on the mechanized illusion-creation to which audiences are likely to have become more accustomed.
Which is partly why this particular tour feels like an experiment, and to a new generation of theater makers seeking to put an imprint on the form, why finding an audience on the road is so important.
The company is in the vanguard of a movement that attempts to look at limited resources not only as a challenge, but also an artistic advantage. Groups such as Fiasco and another New York troupe, Bedlam, are revealing to theatergoers in an age of ever more sophisticated technology that you don’t need the most advanced software package to instill delight. An adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” for instance, based on Bedlam’s long-running off-Broadway hit and staged by one of its artistic heads, Eric Tucker, recently finished a hugely successful run at Folger. One of its ingenious conceits was to put all of the furniture on wheels and have actors push and pull each other in chairs and sofas across the stage, giving the exposition-heavy story a whimsical sense of portability.
You can see, too, the influence of this simple, highly mobile style on promising companies elsewhere, such as Washington’s Pointless Theatre. Founded several years ago by graduates of the University of Maryland’s theater program, it, too, devotes itself to ensemble performance and witty design-on-a-shoestring: Its new production, “King Ubu,” an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi,” begins at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint on Thursday.
Steinfeld and Brody, both of whom appeared in “Into the Woods” in both its debut run and subsequent engagements at Roundabout Theatre Company in New York and, last summer, London’s highly regarded musicals mecca, the Menier Chocolate Factory, say the segue from Shakespeare to Sondheim is less of a stretch than it sounds. Attention to text — navigating the more profound channels of a writer's language — are what they’re often after.
“The strength of the company is that we are very good close readers,” says Brody, who is married to one of Fiasco’s other founders, Jessie Austrian. “We impute intentionality to the authors. We’re not bringing our Wite-Out to the script; we’re bringing out a microscope.”
This can prove illuminating, especially in a deceptively lighthearted piece such as “Into the Woods,” in which Sondheim and Lapine interweave, darkly and comically, a variety of traditional and newly invented fairy tales. “Any moment, big or small/ Is a moment, after all,” Cinderella’s Prince sings, when he encounters and woos the Baker’s Wife in the woods. It’s a observation that Fiasco takes as a veritable mantra. The company’s interpretation tends toward mining the poignant emotionality from moment to moment, as it also seeks to unearth new possibilities in the storytelling. One of the best ideas is, characteristically, both novel and sweet. Normally, Milky White, the cow that Jack of beanstalk fame is supposed to sell, is a mere prop; here she’s played to loving and hilariously ironic effect by a male actor.
“Their whole concept is very actor-driven,” says Eleasha Gamble, a Washington-bred actress, now living in New York. She was Laurey in Arena Stage’s 2010 revival of “Oklahoma!” and played the Witch in a Signature Theatre production of “Into the Woods.” She has been cast here in the pivotal role of the Baker’s Wife. “They’re making us think of these characters in a much more realistic way.”
Gamble not only plays the childless woman who ventures into the woods for the magic ingredients to help her conceive, she also has to play the glockenspiel. “I have a music degree!” she says, laughing. “It’s fun. And it’s also rare that you get to use so many of the tools in your toolbox.”
Into the Woods, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine. Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld. Tickets, $45-$175. Tuesday through Jan. 8 at the Kennedy Center. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.