Filichia Features: Into the Woods: Don't Have a Cow - Or Do!

Filichia Features: Into the Woods: Don't Have a Cow - Or Do!

By Peter Filichia on February 23, 2018

A prop or a person? That’s the question faced by every director who’s planning to mount Into the Woods. Should I use an artificial cow to represent Milky White, Jack’s pride and joy? We could create a big stuffed animal or fashion one out of plastic and put it on wheels. Director James Lapine made the latter choice for his original 1987 production and no one seemed to mind. Into the Woods ran 765 performances and became an instant classic. 15 years later when Lapine helmed the 2002 revival, he cast a genuine human being – Chad Kimball -- as Milky White.

To make a performer to stay in a crouched position all night is indeed asking a great deal. Actors who have performed as various felines in Cats found that bending, crouching and walking with cat-like tread is murder on a body. Indeed, the Broadway production soon hired a chiropractor to deal with its cast members’ aches and pains.

So do you make a performer Milky White and make the crick in the neck hurt worse than the bugs on her dugs?

That’s what Michael Pettenato decided to do in his current production at The Cupcake Theatre in North Hollywood. Nate Stephenson came on as Milky White and the theatergoers’ “Awwwws!” of endearment started the second they laid eyes on the beauty of a beast that was clad in fabric from head to hooves.

(“I get to milk the scenes – pun very much intended,” Stephenson told me later.)

To prepare, Stephenson watched videos of actual cows. “But they don’t have to rely on walking on two canes, which I bought at a 99-cent store,” said Stephenson. “They fit into the hooves very well.”

Virtually all Stephenson’s stage time means standing and walking in an upturned “U” position. “Bending straight forward and then bending straight down,” he said. “It’s hard on my back, hamstring and buttocks.”

More difficult still is the head. “When I put it on for the first time, I thought ‘This is insane,’” he said. “But now I see it as a challenge – which it really was at the performance where the forehead slipped over my eyes. I couldn’t see a thing and had to rely on memory for my blocking.”

And yet, Stephenson said that this assignment is easier than when he had to play the totally immersed Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. “There I had to stand absolutely still,” he said, “which I found very hard to do.”

If all this wasn’t enough, Stephenson also is the show’s co-set designer, assistant lightning designer, master carpenter and electrician. The moment when Milky White falls over and dies must be a godsend for Stephenson who can certainly use the rest.

One thing that sustains Stephenson is his curtain call. Here, the two dozen cast members get their just due but once Stephenson enters with his faux head in his hands, he gets the loudest cheers of all.

Some directors have told me that an actor-driven Milky White isn’t a good idea. The decision results in one more salary, one more person who might arrive late for rehearsals, get too sick to perform or, worse, infect the entire cast.

Pettenato obviously didn’t worry about any of those potential roadblocks. He even enhanced his Into the Woods animal kingdom by having three of his actors double as very tall birds (all to pick out the eyes of Cinderella’s step-sisters, my dear).

“If I have an actor playing the cow and another playing the wolf, why not have three others play the birds?” he said.

The director had another brainstorm. Given that Cinderella’s Mother, Jack’s Mother and The Baker’s Wife all die midway through the second act, Pettenato brought them back during “No One Is Alone” and just had them stand still on stage. The reason was to show, if we may paraphrase a Lion King lyric, they live in them -- the daughter, son and wife of those who survived them.

Finally, Pettenato did what many have done before him: The Baker, his Wife and their home were positioned dead center, with Cinderella and her family stage right and Jack and his contingency stage left. This was not the case in Lapine’s productions, for he placed the husband and wife extreme stage right. But it is their story, isn’t it? That is, unless a human cow winds up stealing the show.

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