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THEATER : A Playful 'Into the Woods' at UCI : The campus production plumbs the loopy potential of Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's fairy tale gone mad.

November 20, 1990|MARK CHALON SMITH

IRVINE — There's this enigmatic character--call him a glen goblin, a forest spirit, a refugee from Cirque du Soleil, whatever--that pops up early on in UC Irvine's witty staging of Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's "Into the Woods."

He does peculiar things--call it juggling, dancing, skipping, whatever--with a cache of hoops while the musical swirls around him. Striking, but does he have anything to do with the story? Not that I could see, but he does provide something director Barbara Damashek's production is big on: a little surprise and tickle.

Damashek, who was praised for her direction of "Sunday in the Park With George" at South Coast Repertory last year, has great fun with "Into the Woods," searching out its loopy potential by orchestrating a series of visual puns. Some are gratuitous and tend to obscure parts of the winding, fantastic plot, but most fit in with the musical's own giddy, parodying visual landscape and even take it further.

"Into the Woods," written in 1987, values playfulness. You would expect that from a story line that brings a Who's Who of fairy-tale stars (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (the Beanstalk proprietor), Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella) together in a new tale involving a baker, his wife and a particularly grumpy witch.

But the playfulness comes with bite. Unlike most fables, things don't turn out so well. A fairy tale where Prince Charming is a philanderer and Rapunzel is banished to the desert with twin babies and goes nuts? Life is tough all over, even in our dreams.

Much of the play's success at UC Irvine comes from Damashek's tilted vision, which gives it all a yowling black-comedy tone that manages to retain tinges of innocence crucial to "Into the Woods," as it is to any fable. She gets characterizations from her cast that, at best, are wickedly funny without being perverse.

The show's look is exceptional, especially when considering that this is a campus production. Set designer Douglas-Scott Goheen's opening scenery frames the actors imaginatively, allowing their individual stories to mingle while setting the scene for the puns that come later.

He does turn our expectations upside-down in the second act when the forest dimensions are changed drastically and the characters are thrown into a darkened corner of looming trees. Considering what we've seen before, the look is odd but also dramatic and epic.

Music director Dennis Castellano (he also teamed up with Damashek on "Sunday in the Park With George" at SCR) gets generally good performances out of his cast, but there is a range in talent.

Sondheim's often challenging score is best handled by Maria Cominis Glaudini as Cinderella, Myrona DeLaney as the witch, Craig George as the baker, Deanne I. Lorette as the baker's wife and Dana P. Crouch as Little Red Riding Hood.

'INTO THE WOODS'

A UC Irvine production of the Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) musical. Directed by Barbara Damashek. With Michael Robinson, Maria Cominis Glaudini, Trent Bright, Dianna Gray, Laurrinda Robinson, Craig George, Deanne I. Lorette, Carolyn Bjerke, Tanya Jean Kluck, Sandi Joseph, Sam Zeller, Dana P. Crouch, Myrona DeLaney, Paul Tifford Jr., Luck Hari, Eddie Keener, Karen Meyler and Nick Anselmo. Musical direction by Dennis Castellano. Sets by Douglas-Scott Goheen. Costumes by Elizabeth Novak. Lighting by Ellery J. Brown. Plays Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, at the campus's Fine Arts Village Theatre. Tickets: $10 to $14. Information: (714) 856-6616 or (714) 856-5000.

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