The Story: 4 fairy tales are intertwined around the theme of wish fulfillment and a quest through the woods. Cinderella goes into the woods to commune with her mother's spirit and is found throughout the play stumbling through it escaping from the Prince; Rapunzel's tower is there, her prison and refuge from the world, where the witch keeps a close eye on her to protect her prize from life; Jack heads into the woods to sell his cow Milky White, urged by his mother not to trade less than 5 pounds for the cow; and Little Red Riding Hood sallies forth to pay a visit to her grandmother, and encounters her nemesis. The only undefined fairy tale is the story of the Baker and his wife, but it is the genesis for most of the play.
When the play begins, the audience is faced with three sets, each one pointing towards one of the stories. As the long prologue is sung, we learn that Cinderella is suffering from the abuse of her stepmother and stepsisters and wishes to attend the King's Festival; her stepmother torments her by promising to let her attend the festival if she manages to pick the lentils from the ashes. For those who only know the Cinderella story based on the Disney cartoon, I highly recommend reading the older versions of the fairy tale, the gorier version with eyeballs pecked out, toes and heels cut off. There are no magical speaking/singing mice involved in the play. The middle set is for Jack and his mother; she calls him a fool, and thinks he's touched in the head. He's a bumbling, but kind fellow who loves his cow. These days, he might be considered something of an artisan, but in those days, well, he's just a boy with no social interaction other than a bovine. She tells him to sell the cow as they have nothing left to eat. The last set is for the Baker and his wife, who sing of their inability to have a child. They are interrupted by two visitors, the first is Red Riding Hood buying bread and sweets for her ailing grandma who lives down a long path through the woods. The second visitor is the witch, who tells the Baker and Baker's Wife why they have remained barren.
The Baker turns out to be the never heard of brother of Rapunzel. A long time ago, their father went into the witch's garden to get vegetables for his pregnant wife. He ravishes the garden taking all sorts of greens, and not being very neighborly about it either according to the witch. He also takes beans, magical beans. In return for his actions, the witch takes the baby, Rapunzel, away from the man and his wife, and curses them with infertility for the stolen beans. The curse continues through with the Baker and his wife, but the witch offers them a reprieve. Find her four items by the stroke of midnight three days hence and the curse will be lifted: a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a gold slipper, and a cloak as red as blood. She orders them on their quest.
Throughout Act One, the stories converge, mishaps occur, Princes run after maidens or entice them down from their towers, the cow is sold, is lost, refound, reborn. Jack gets beans for the cow, the beans grow into a redwood size-stalk and he steals three treasures from a giant, who dies in pursuit of Jack. Cinderella attends 3 nights of the King's Festival, loses her slipper to a wily Prince and is made into a princess after her sisters are handicapped. Red Riding Hood is eaten by the Wolf, but saved by the Baker. Rapunzel is nearly lost to the world, but finds her prince, all of them babes in arms. The Baker and his wife lift the curse and the witch gets her groove back. All ends happily ever after.
In Act Two, (yes, Virginia, there is an Act Two) we see the same cast of characters, but happily ever after doesn't consider all the after effects of obtaining one's heart's desires. The Witch may be young and beautiful again, but has no powers. Rapunzel may have regained her Prince, but she seems to be a neurotic mess who wants her mommy. Cinderella can't find her footing in the castle, plus her family's decided to move in with her, sort of a hypocritical greek chorus, pandering to her every whim, while her Prince isn't around much, he's got a roving eye that one. Red Riding Hood, the Baker and wife, and Jack plus his mom (and the cow) are the first to find out directly that a Giant is out and about. Soon, life as they know it is in shambles, and everyone can't find a decent hiding place against the marauding giant. Lives are lost, and family bonds break apart. Eventually, the act is completed and satisfaction is achieved, they wish.