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Left to right, the Baker's Wife (Katie Bullock) and the Baker (Eric Solis) beg the Witch (Gracie Jurczyk) to help them become parents at any cost in SOU Theatre's production of "Into the Woods," playing in the Main Stage Theater Nov 8-18. Photo courtesy Kim Budd Photography

Exploring life's greatest questions -- in the woods

Southern Oregon University’s theatrical arts students will present two very different productions in November. In both, the protagonists retreat to the woods in search of answers to life’s big questions. However, one is a silent quest, an introspective journey. The other is a raucous rendezvous with larger-than-life characters.

Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds” runs Nov. 1-11 in SOU’s Black Box Theater on the Ashland campus, 491 S. Mountain Ave. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Nov. 10-11.

The play centers around six adults who flee from the din of city life to embark on a silent retreat. Total strangers at the outset, they find the vow of silence a battle of wills as they confront internal demons and long for outward connections with one another.

The challenge: How do you speak your mind, when you can’t say a word? And, when words fail, how do you express your heart’s desire?

“‘Small Mouth Sounds’ is a unique play that speaks to our universal loneliness in a time of (perceived) connectivity,” says director Jackie Apodaca.

The play is filled with awkward humor and compassion, she adds.

The other production, “Into the Woods,” opens Nov. 8 in SOU’s Main Stage Theater on the Ashland campus. Performances are at 8 p.m. Nov. 8-10 and Nov. 15-18. Matinees are set for 2 p.m. Nov. 17-18.

With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, “Into the Woods” is a dizzy mash-up of several fairy tales, including “Jack in the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel,” with a kaleidoscope of colorful characters spinning stories and songs for the Baker and his wife who are in search of “happily ever after.”

Director Paul Mason Barnes calls it “a thought-provoking journey.”

“It is poignant with irresistibly rich music and dazzling lyrics,” he adds.

When Apodaca saw the original New York production of “Small Mouth Sounds,” she says she was struck by how effectively Wohl was able to communicate her characters’ inner lives through the unique format that employs minimal dialogue and requires audience members to “observe silence” during the 90-minute production.

“After seeing the show, I felt as if I myself had been on the retreat. I wanted to go back into the world of the play and know more about everyone living there.”

While the six retreat attendees — Ned (Grant Luecke), Alicia (Alyssa Matthews), Judy (Hannah Fawcett), Joan (Katie Herling), Rodney (Torrin Kelly) and Jan (Jake Raiter) — rarely speak, the guru-like character Teacher (Carlos Zenen Trujillo) does have a lot to say.

“But, only as a disembodied voice,” says Apodaca.

Though Wohl was explicit with extensive stage directions, Apodaca says she wrote with “inherent freedom towards interpretation.”

“She suggests what the characters might do, but like in life, the choices for the actors were pretty open-ended.”

She adds that the audience also has “a great deal of freedom” to interpret the story.

“In life, we evaluate other people’s intentions, needs, and emotional states without words all the time. Wohl’s play gives a chance to apply our observational skills to a piece of fiction,” she says.

“Here we get to see actors feeling very deep things, going through transformative experiences, without the playwright’s voice commenting on them.”

It’s an opportunity for the audience, she says, “to question their own experiences and reflect on their own lives.”

“Small Mouth Sounds” is recommended for age 13 and older due to mature adult themes.

While the cast for “Small Mouth Sounds” is small and the staging intimate, the cast for “Into the Woods” is large and the production a bit of “Grimm Fairy Tales” meets the “Wonderful World of Disney.”

Barnes says he loves how Sondheim and Lapine “up-end” the happily ever after of folk and fairy tales.

“There’s plenty of comedy amidst the seriousness” of the pair’s message of risk and growth, he says.

“Life requires us to go into the woods. If we are to become richer, fuller human beings, we have to risk traveling into the unknown,” he says.

“Life is arbitrary and random at best and chooses for us, no matter how carefully we lay out our plans and work to fulfill our ambitions and dreams — but other times we need to seize the day and dive in to the darkness and danger that is symbolized by the journey to the woods.”

The long and winding road through the woods features Narrator (Josh Nile), Cinderella (Mattie Easdale), Jack (Ian Ferrell), Jack’s Mother (Taya Dixon), Baker (Eric Solis), Baker’s Wife (Katie Bullock), Cinderella’s Stepmother (Quinci Freeman-Lytle), Florinda (Martha Thatcher), Lucinda (Isabella Thatcher), Cinderella’s Father (Alex Giorgi), Little Red Riding Hood (Meghan Nealon), Witch (Gracie Jurczyk), Cinderella’s Mother (Shelby Fredricks), Mysterious Man (Ian Fyfield), Wolf (Sean Boulton), Granny (Maddie Wack), Rapunzel (Carolyn Theiss), Rapunzel’s Prince (Samuel Campbell), Cinderella’s Prince (Austin Ewing), Steward (Corey Renfree), Giant (Maeve Martinez), Snow White (Elizabeth Martinie), Sleeping Beauty (Betsy LeClair) and Milky White (Jamin Jollo).

Underscoring the journey are poignant songs such as “No One is Alone” and “Children will Listen.”

“Into the Woods” is family fare and appropriate for audiences age 8 and older. However, it should be noted that the play runs just under three hours with one 15-minute intermission.

Tickets for all performances of either production are $20 general admission, $15 for seniors, and $5 for full-time students from any school with appropriate student ID.

Except for student tickets, tickets may be purchased online at oca.sou.edu/box-office or by calling 541-552-6348 or stopping by the Oregon Center for the Arts box office at 491 S. Mountain Ave. between noon and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or one hour before curtain.

Free parking is available in the large lot corner of South Mountain Ave and Henry Street across from the SOU Music Building.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

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