The core idea of the play is its idea of bringing various fairy tale characters together. It is a mark of the fertile imagination of writer Stephen Sondheim that classic fairy heroes such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel etc, are brought under one grand narrative. While retaining their original features that these characters are renowned for, the author places their personality in new contexts. These contexts are of two forms – the first is that pertaining to plot and the second is in interaction with other (equally famous) characters. The acting ensemble is led by the brilliant El Beh donning the role of the Baker’s Wife. This essay will foray into how El Beh plays a central role and holds the various sub-narratives together. Further, the dynamics and various facets of her acting are analyzed in relation to that of her co-actors.
The pivot around which Beh’s character revolves is the impending dream of having a baby. While one might call it an objective, it is not portrayed in conflicted terms. Beh takes us through the journey of realization that she had experienced. While everyone else around her are longing after dreams unfulfilled, the Baker’s Wife has the audacity to show deep contentment with her past and present. She feels an immense sense of fulfillment with her domestic life and the small joys that it contains. It is in this context that the idea of having a baby strikes her. It is a simple and natural desire for a maiden, but it is contrasted with the goals of other characters in the play. Beh’s role is the most challenging of all. Yet, she succeeds in conveying the moral complexities of her character in a clear and uncluttered way.
The socio-economic status of the Baker’s wife is decidedly modest. This is visible in the choice of costume she wears and the absence of jewelry in her person. Her contemporary, urban accent is another indicator of her status. But her wealth is no measure of her pride and dignity. She carries herself in a respectable fashion. This is most evident in her inner thoughts, depicted in the play as song-monologues. A notable such number is ‘Moments in the Woods’ sung by her. There is richness in the subtext of the song, for beneath the façade of a regular melancholic utterance, the song carries philosophical insights. Beh’s rich tonal quality carries the song to all corners of the auditorium. Not only is her pitch perfect for the theatre, but also consistent with the role she is playing. In contrast, some of the other actors adopt a presentation style that harks back to classic theatre.
When we compare El Beh’s acting with the rest of the cast, the difference in quality is easy to see. Keith Pinto as the Baker plays his role competently and complements his wife’s acting. While Beh’s performance has attracted much attention, Pinto too manages to bring an understated perfection to his role. After all, it is he who evokes all the difficult moral dilemmas within the plot. Monique Hafen, who plays Cinderella, utilizes her natural good looks and vocal prowess to good effect. That is not to say that she is not equally good in playing the fool in certain parts of the play. Other memorable characters in the play are that of the Witch and the Mysterious Man, played by Safiya Fredericks and Louis Parnell respectively. These two enliven the narrative, along with the trio of wolves. The acting skills of most actors are tested during the song sequences. But of them all, it is El Beh whose performance nears perfection.
The rich inter-textual dialogue, song and music help showcase El Beh’s all-round skill and focus. But unfortunately, she and her colleages are let down by stage dimensions. The somewhat congested space of the stage undermine her expression at places. This is particularly true in scenes involving numerous actors, where the stage appears particularly cramped. It also has the drawback of inhibiting choreography. Actors, including El Beh, appear conscious of limitations in space and in turn do not fully and freely express the emotion demanded by the moment.
In terms of criticism, one could say El Beh overdoes her choreographic parts, for it tended to take audience attention away from the lyrics. This is most evident during the rendering of It Takes Two by the Baker and his wife, where the audio-visual spectacle dilutes the gravity of the situation – undermining the feeling of newfound intimacy between the couple. Similarly, the nostalgia invoked by songs such as No One Is Alone and Children Will Listen also tend to undermine the exigencies of the plot. While El Beh’s brilliant individual performance carries the play, loose co-ordination between her and her co-actors is a letdown. When not speaking or singing, they seem to switch off mentally even when standing next to the action.
To sum up the acting appraisal, El Beh is the best performer among the ensemble. The rest of the crew is of good quality, though not of the same pedigree as Beh.