Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'Unrolls like a film': Austin's Zach Theatre is back with immersive outdoor 'Into the Woods'

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
"Into the Woods," the first major in-person theatrical production from Zach Theatre since the pandemic began, reimagines the Sondheim classic in an outdoor setting.

The words cling to us: "No one is alone."

With the help of creative artists, we have not been entirely alone during the past months of widespread and varied turmoil. 

And now Zach Theatre, the city's leading theater company, is back in full force with an immersive, outdoor staging of a Stephen Sondheim musical, the wise songs of which have helped some of us survive a seemingly endless series of crises.

"Into the Woods," the fractured and reconstructed fairy tales about how we push through darkness and danger without brutalizing each other, was the perfect candidate to serve as the first major show from Austin's theater community in-person return.

More:10 art shows you don't want to miss at Austin museums this fall

Not surprisingly, artistic director Dave Steakley has reimagined it through a pandemic lens. Yet even if performed exactly as it was staged when it premiered on Broadway in 1986, this masterpiece of a musical would be balm for our times.

Putting it together

Happily, Steakley has assembled a robust team of artists who frame the fantastical action in an outdoor setting at the People's Plaza. This wide, open space lies between the company's three indoor venues. As early as a year ago, Zach employed this "fourth theater" for themed concerts, dubbed "Songs Under the Stars." 

"Into the Woods," by contrast, is a fully staged show. The action starts on three platforms underneath a large burr oak, then scurries around the perimeter of the plaza. Guests follow the performers on their journeys by rotating in their swivel chairs.

Webb: Actually, Austin's zillion festivals are good

A stage show unfolds like a film

One of the key elements that keeps the action flowing and the fantasy animated is the visual work of Sandra Lopez, new to Austin. She designed the scenery and the properties.

"There are lots of small touches throughout for me: the way Sandra crafted the witch's staff that she casts spells with," Steakley says, "the golden hen for Jack that she hand-sculpted from clay, the Baker's baked goods which she also sculpted, and the lovely representation of Cinderella's birds without being literal.”

It makes sense to import fresh talent for this show.

Sandra Lopez designed the scenery and properties for Zach Theatre's outdoor, immersive "Into the Woods." She did not design this burr oak, but she used it in novel ways.

During the past decades, Zach Theatre has assembled a reliable troupe of superb artists, but it has wisely dipped into regional and national pools of talent, as well.

Lopez, 28, was born in McAllen and grew up mostly in San Antonio.

"That's where I found my knack for theater," Lopez says. "First acting, then tech, then design."

After studying at West Texas A&M University and University of Missouri-Kansas City, she designed shows for touring summer stock and companies in cities such as Ashville, North Carolina, and San Antonio. She only just recently moved to Austin. 

Her facility at building props made her a particularly attractive candidate for the "Into the Woods" gig. Since not much standard scenery is employed in the plaza, much of what we see along with the performers is portable, or at least movable.

Alongside video designer Stephanie Busing, lighting designer Austin Brown, costume designer Bobby Moffett, and hair and makeup designer Serret Jensen and team, Lopez conveys the visual magic that the performers don't summon up on their own. Of course, crack musical director Allen Robertson and expert sound designer Craig Brock add to what we hear rather than see.

“I had the idea for the loteria cards in our outside marquees to be the elements of the quest that propels this story forward," Steakley says. "Sandra designs handmade, personalized loteria cards and she created these images ... which I absolutely love."

Actress Nova Payton plays the Witch in Zach Theatre’s production of “Into the Woods.”

"Dave had a pretty strong vision," Lopez says. "It unrolls like a film. We find locations around the plaza and work with those locations."

In one of the show's cleverest bits, Rapunzel warbles from a "Juliet's balcony" built into the Topfer Theater's façade. A charming architectural device, I've never seen it used during an event or performance before.

Among the other innovations wrought by Lopez and her teammates:

  • Projections on the leaves of the burr oak tree that dominates the west side of the plaza and stands in for the woods.
  • A portable stage — recently purchased by Zach — rises on the southeastern rim of the plaza. Shadow images create some amusing illusions, while video, including a song sung à la Zoom, introduce present-day elements.
  • More shadow puppetry, this time depicting the female giant, takes place behind a big glass screen.
  • A statue of a cow, a leftover from a citywide sculpture art display that usually stands in the plaza, becomes, on a wheeled dolly, "Milky the Cow," crucial to the stories of Jack — of beanstalk fame — and his mother, along with the Witch, the Baker and the Baker's Wife.
  • Several elements descend from the leafy tree, including Cinderella's crucial avian friends, as well as, in the second act, medical masks.

"We are not performing in a box," Lopez says. "We cannot hide anything. We are treating it as child's play. ... It enhances the storytelling, not just decorative. We intend to keep the audience on its toes. You won't get a chance to sleep in your seat."

Musical attendees take their seats in swivel chairs before Zach Theatre’s opening night production of “Into the Woods” on Oct. 5. The musical is staged outdoors on the theater’s plaza, and uses several stages, letting the audience rotate in their chairs to see the action.

Why we watch this show

Seen in preview before all the elements were settled into place, this "Into the Woods" comes with little breathing room.

It snatches our attention from the opening chord, and the first words from the narrator: "Once upon a time ...," and doesn't let go until Cinderella's final gasp of "I wish!"

Sondhiem and James Lapine's cobbling of familiar fairy tales has never been about children's stories, although young audiences are often mesmerized by it. Rather, it delves into what the tales (and, particularly, their aphorisms) say about growing up; wishing for what could be good or bad; experience with actual rather than romanticized sex and companionship; growing together and, especially, apart, including the heartbreaking statement of loss: "Sometimes people leave you / halfway through the woods."

More:Tickets are on sale for 'Hamilton' in Austin

Although this article is not to be taken as a formal review of the Zach staging, I can assure you that the cast is top-notch, one of the best I've ever seen, and I've been a fan of the show since 1986.

Like many Zach Theatre shows, "Into the Woods" uses some nontraditional interpretations of classic stage touches.

The show grows in stature. It might not carry the dark ballast of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," the artistic insight of "Sunday in the Park with George," the youthful vitality of "Merrily We Roll Along," the social bite of "Company," the autumnal elegance of "A Little Night Music" or the show biz glamour of "Follies."

Yet after seeing a preview — delayed a week because of rain — during an exquisite evening on the verge of our Austin parks/woods, I'm convinced that "Into the Woods," and its profound psychological insights, irresistible score and ingenious storytelling, is exactly what the artistic doctor ordered for our times.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of performer Nova Payton and the last name of sound designer Craig Brock.

If you go

"Into the Woods" runs at Zach Theatre through Nov. 7. Get tickets, $25-$72, at zachtheatre.org.