In Strange Woods is a new limited series from Atypical Artists. I received the first two episodes in advance for review.
“There’s really only one thing that kills anyone who dares to venture into the untamed wilderness. And that’s our innate tendency to make emotional decisions in critical situations.” - In Strange Woods, Episode 1: "A Man Who Could Not Be Saved"
Jacob Wells had never been taught to survive in the wilderness. So when a prom afterparty in the woods leads to him going missing, it’s just a small-town tragedy—sad, but unavoidable—when his body is finally found. That is, to everyone but his younger sister, Peregrine (Lily Mae Harrington), whose newfound fear of the wild quickly becomes matched only by her determination to face and conquer it. Add in investigative podcast producer Brett Ryback (Brett Ryback), back in his hometown for the first time in years, and you have the beginnings of a story poised to break hearts.
This is the setup of In Strange Woods, a new audio drama that combines two well-loved fiction podcast genres, the fictional true-crime investigation and the podcast musical, into one tense and emotional narrative. The show is created by Jeff Luppino-Esposito (“Hall Stars”), Brett Ryback (Modern Family), and Matt Sav (Musical: The Online Musical), and is produced by Atypical Artists (The Bright Sessions, The AM Archives). The cast is packed with Broadway stars and audio fiction favorites while still managing to avoid the artificial, over-produced feel that accompanies many higher-profile pieces. Part of this can be attributed to Atypical Artists’ foundation and history in independent audio drama. And part of this is due to the central conceit— a bit of a “produced sound” makes sense when you’re supposedly listening to a narrative podcast. It’s the perfect framing for the story being told.
The show's music is fun, and definitely comes with a classic “musical” feel. Songs are unafraid to lean into the advantages a podcast has over a live performance, like when cast member’s voices fade in and out of a particularly complex chorus, creating the effect of rotating from person to person. The initial transition to the first song does come as a bit of a surprise, materializing seemingly out of nowhere and immediately transforming the basic feel of the story. But, as subsequent listens reveal, there are hidden tells going in, and one of the earliest—and one of my favorites—comes in the form of subtle shifts in the narration:
Narrator and reporter Brett doesn’t sing— at least, not as much as his interviewees. But significant portions of his narration are still delivered with music and meter in mind, and the overall effect is something close to poetry. Contrasted with the emotion-laden testimonies of the investigation’s focus, it creates an artificial separation between Brett and the people of Whitetail— a separation that makes itself known when he’s faced with a choice: get involved, and prevent more unnecessary harm, or stay on the sidelines, a willing observer to a game that we’re told in Episode 1 is doomed to go very, very wrong. Brett’s ongoing struggle to preserve journalistic integrity and play the part of the unbiased reporter makes him even more a part of the narrative, exemplified best in his attempts at conversation with local eccentric Peter ‘Howl’ Howland (Patrick Page) and in his barely veiled concern for Peregrine.
And speaking of Peregrine— the tension between her and her friends juxtaposes beautifully against the running themes of Midwestern hospitality and insularity embodied by the adults of the town. The idea of this somewhat unlikely group of teens drifting together under the eye of a fiercely determined leader perfectly mirrors both the town’s initial acceptance of Howl as harmless until there’s blame to be laid and the various parents’ outward support of the Wells versus their personal misgivings. The dissonance between how Peregrine and her mother Kathy (Donna Lynne Champlin) process their grief and trauma is heartbreaking, and the way they’re both quick to trust Brett with their side of the story while failing to communicate with each other makes it even more so. It’s hard not to root for every character here on some level, even the ones that seem menacing, brash, or scared.
In Strange Woods would not work as well as a stage musical; the senses of urgency, of danger, of emotional frustration and distance that are present here are threaded carefully in and out by the documentary’s lines of questioning and careful editing. And yet, it wouldn’t work as just a fictional documentary, either. Music and song translate emotion in a way that can’t always be said cleanly with words, and the underlying grief of both Peregrine and Kathy is much more communicable when told through lyrics that allow them to voice what they might otherwise never say aloud.
At the end of the day, In Strange Woods is an ambitious production that takes fear of the unknown and tackles how the desire to conquer it through understanding and trial can do more harm than good. While it isn’t billed as a horror, it certainly taps into many a horrifying reality, and will likely hit close to home for many, whether via the sprawling wild or the complicated relationships. Its release continues the Atypical Artists’ tradition of twisting the familiar into something new, and with plans for extras like a full-cast album in the works, it’s shaping up to be something special indeed.