On Prejudice and Art

into the woods

I attended the Stanford Asian American Theater Project’s production of Into the Woods holding a degree of excitement and eagerness I rarely feel when I review on-campus productions. Having seen and loved AATP productions in the past, as well as being a huge fan of this Sondheim classic, I was looking forward to a night of beauty, hilarity, poignancy, and talent. Unfortunately, others had a different idea.

Before the show, I was preparing my notebook and pen for scribbling in the dark, casually observing the crowd surrounding me. A group of people behind me were shuffling through the program, loudly commenting on the performers and their biographies. That’s when I heard a statement that made my blood run cold and my face flush hot.

“Let’s guess who’s Asian and who’s just Asian with a white name!”

I sat still, straining my ears to hear above the hustle and bustle of the audience surrounding me. Certain names were thrown out, laughs were shared. A few minutes later, after I had moved down a seat to allow a large group of friends to sit together, I heard another girl say:

“I’m not used to unprofessional theater.”

Not sure if she was part of the same group commenting on the cast and crew, but I suppose I understood what she meant by that statement. Perhaps she was a freshman who was attending her first Stanford production. I could be missing the context of both of these conversations. I could be missing a lot of preconceptions and, yes, prejudices. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe someone could be so rude. I returned my attention to my notes when I heard her say:

“If it gets too bad, just focus on So-and-So’s violin.”

Luckily for her, Into the Woods never came even remotely close to that point.

It’s a gorgeous production. From the beautifully designed set, hued with deep reds, bright oranges, and cool greys, to the near-professional command of comedic timing, the cast and crew of Into the Woods infuses this tale of desire and decision with a creative freshness that can be lost when performing such an influential piece of theater.

the princes

One such interesting and notable choice is the movement away from the classic Milky White cow costume; instead, actor Nicholas Pether is clad in white clothes with a rope tied around his waist. This bolsters his performance as the “cow as white as milk”; without uttering one word of dialogue, chewing perpetually on imaginary cud, Pether undoubtedly plays one of the funniest characters in the entire show. His comedy comes completely from his body, from rolling eyes in reaction to discussion of his fate in the hands of humans to his sneaky attempts to escape the hold of the Baker (Preston Lim) and his wife (Tess McCarthy). Yet Pether is not the only cast member who makes the audience roar in laughter; in fact, the Princes’ (Nathan Large and Bright Zhou) number “Agony” is arguably the most hilarious piece in the entire show. Zhou and Large alternate expertly between languid charm and sharp bursts of woe as they recount their “love” for their unattainable lady loves; they bounce off of each other seamlessly, and their playful brotherhood is wonderfully showcased in one’s eye-rolling reaction to the rich solo of the other.

Musically, Sondheim is one of the most difficult composers to perform. The Into the Woods cast and orchestra command the music with an impressive air of professionalism, from Saya Jenks’ sweet Cinderella soprano to Hannah Pho’s nasally, comedic Little Red alto. While some vocals fell weak during especially strenuous solos and the music was overpowering at times, the ensemble performances are complex and nearly perfectly timed, especially the final number of “Finale/Children Will Listen”; we see all characters, both present and past, reminiscing on the lessons of the show and treating us to their gorgeous voices, in harmony, in sync. “Giants in the Sky,” performed by Miles Petrie, is gorgeous in not only Petrie’s control of his sweet, clear tenor, but also the smooth, exciting choreography that takes full advantage of the set surrounding him. In contrast, Cameron Campbell’s performance as the Wolf treats us to a voice so powerful, the entire auditorium shakes with every deep, bellowing note of “Hello, Little Girl.”

While Into the Woods is hysterical, snappy, fast-paced, and fun, it’s also poignant, sad, thought-provoking, and meaningful. Preston Lim’s performance as the Baker is the epitome of emotional complexity, holding melancholy, joy, frustration; the role itself is a challenge due to its inherent humanity in the face of  the fantastic. In the duet “No More,” both Lim and the Mysterious Man (Yan Yan) are stripped down to their most bare, their voices dripping with emotion as they bare themselves to the audience and call for an end to the madness surrounding them. Teyonna Jarman, in contrast, is faced with emotional complexity in the role of the Witch, but her character depth lies more in the psychology of her past mistakes. In Jarman’s performance of “Stay With Me,” she flows back and forth between caring and controlling, her sweet soprano sending chills of both sadness and fear down the spines of the audience.

The main mission of the Asian American Theater Project is to address the misrepresentation of Asians and Asian Americans in theater; however, Into the Woods, in the words of director Ariana Johnson, is not an “Asian” Into the Woods. This production seeks to celebrate diversity, culture, strength, resilience, and intersectionality. It seeks to facilitate respectful discussions on identity, race, art. It does not seek to create prejudices in the context of art. It does not exist for individuals to create play guessing games with names and ethnicities. It does not exist for supremacy, classism, bias. It does not exist for you, people I was sitting in front of, to support with money what you tear down with your racially critical words. Into the Woods and the Asian American Theater Project exist to perform beautiful theater without socially constructed boundaries. And they succeed beyond prejudiced expectations.

Photos courtesy of Frank Chen. 

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