A group of familiar fairy-tale characters enter unfamiliar territory when their stories intersect in a dark forest over the course of three nights.
The fate of these disparate—and discontented—people was determined a generation earlier when a young baker tried to quell the cravings of his pregnant wife by sneaking into the garden of a neighboring witch and stealing her green vegetables. As punishment, the witch kidnapped their newborn baby girl, named her Rapunzel, and locked her away in a tower. To prevent further thievery, the Witch placed a curse on the baker’s only son, ensuring that his family tree would be barren.
The action of the play begins when the Witch returns to tell the son, now grown and a baker himself, that he can undo the spell and conceive a child with his wife if he retrieves the following items by the stroke of midnight three days hence:
One: the cow as white as milk
Two: the cape as red as blood
Three: the hair as yellow as corn
Four: the slipper as pure as gold
The baker ventures into the woods with the unwanted assistance of his resourceful Wife, armed only the beans he believes his father may have stolen from the Witch’s garden. Eventually, the couple fulfill their quest by duping a lad out of his cow in exchange for their “magic” beans, struggling to get a cape off a girl trying to bring a basket of goodies to her grandmother, cutting off the long hair of a girl locked in a tower and stealing the shoe off the foot of a maiden fleeing a prince after a ball. The expected fairy-tale endings of Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella occur with everyone, including the Baker and his Wife, living happily ever after.
But that’s not the end of this story. In the second act, the consequences of the characters’ actions play out, most crucially the vengeance of a widowed giantess determined to find the larcenous lad who climbed a beanstalk, then chopped it down, killing her husband. However, with the convoluted machinations that led to that calamity, no one is free of blame. And no one but the Witch wants to sacrifice the simple-minded Jack. Together they must figure out how to restore peace to the land—without magic.
The Dark Woods
The literary symbolism of the forest is as richly textured as a forest itself, dating back at least 4,000 years to the ancient Mesopotamian poem of Gilgamesh. In that epic tale, Gilgamesh the warrior enlists the aid of the sun god to defeat the demon guard of the forest. Thus the woods—a dark, sunless place populated by wild animals, thieves and rogues—came to be associated with the demonic, while the life-generating sun represented the divine.
Imagery contrasting light and dark abounds in Sondheim’s lyrics throughout Into the Woods. “The way is clear / The light is good,” sing the characters in the first act before they head into the forest. But in the second act, a year older and wiser, they sing, “The way is dark / The light is dim.”
The symbolism goes beyond the sinister. “The forest is the place where vegetable life thrives and luxuriates, free from any control or cultivation,” wrote mythologist J. E. Cirlot. This sense of abandon is reflected in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, where characters lose their inhibitions and express their true selves once they’re separated from civilization under the canopy of trees. Midsummer follows the tradition of the woods as a place of enchantment, while in As You Like It, the Forest of Arden provides the freedom to “fleet the time carelessly.”
With the advent of psychology, the forest came to be associated with the subconscious mind, giving rise to the modern interpretation of fairy tales by both Freudians and Jungians.
Still, the uncertain dangers of an uninhabited environment continue to capture the contemporary imagination, even in our connected digital age. The lost hikers of the film The Blair Witch Project caused a pop culture sensation in 1999, while The Forbidden Forest on the outskirts of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series is considered too dangerous even for wizards, providing refuge to such threats as the Blood-Sucking Bugbears.
Closer to OSF is the magical mischief of TV’s Grimm, which makes extensive use of the old-growth forests in Portland.
In the words of Cinderella’s Prince, “Anything can happen in the woods.”
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.