by Samuel L. Leiter
Strangemen & Co.’s The Woodsman, a darkly imaginative prequel to the story most of us know as The Wizard of Oz, is back in New York after several earlier incarnations, including the only time a show has been given a return engagement at 59E59 Theaters. Combining elegantly choreographed movement, sensitive music, imaginative puppetry, and a minimum of spoken language, it offers 70 uninterrupted minutes of theatre magic that can be enjoyed by both adults and children.
Although L. Frank Baum had no intention of writing a sequel to his 1900 children’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, it proved so popular he eventually wrote 13 of them; when he died in 1919 another writer took up the pen and squeezed another 21 stories out of the franchise. Almost from the start, the material attracted stage and film productions—the classic, of course, being 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. Broadway musical hits, Wicked and The Wiz (the latter recently produced live on TV), continue the worldwide obsession with Baum’s story of Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow, and their quest to reach the Emerald City.
The Woodsman, written by the multitalented James Ortiz, has the ambience of an Appalachian folk tale, reminding me of Dark of the Moon, Howard Richardson and William Berney’s 1945 play about a witch boy; it gives us the back story on how the Tin Woodman (or “woodsman” as the play has it) got that way. Ortiz, who not only wrote the play, designed its sets, created its splendid puppets, and codirected it with Claire Karpen, plays the woodsman, Nick Chopper, son of Pa (Will Gallacher) and Ma (Lauren Nordvig); his woodsman dad teaches him how to chop down trees, his parents die, and he falls in love with the beautiful Nimmie (Eliza Martin Simpson), slave to the desiccated wicked witch of the East (a scary old lady puppet manipulated by Amanda A. Lederer and Sophia Zukoski); this enrages the nasty hag. Eventually, we see Nick transformed from a human to a tin man, represented by the startling puppet whose visage adorns the Playbill and can be seen on posters throughout the subway system.
Apart from a brief, narrative introduction to the tale, delivered by Ortiz, and the lyrics (by Jen Loring) to several songs, the characters communicate not in words but in various vocal sounds, mostly grunts and shouts. The witch, you see, has prohibited people from speaking their thoughts to one another. In action, however, the convention ultimately wears out its welcome.
Apart from various crows that fly about in actors’ hands, there are only three puppets: the witch, the tin man, both of them more or less life-sized and based on bunraku principles, and the cowardly lion (or is that a tiger?), an impressively oversized assemblage of sections, each handled by a separate actor. For the most part, The Woodsman focuses on flesh and blood.
The 11-member cast performs within Ortiz’s enchantingly theatrical, semicircular arrangement of vertical wooden slats and branches, overhung by a marvelous chandelier combining branches with what seem like countless glass jars with miniature lights in them; even the sidewalls of the theatre are part of the design. The actors use a few selective props (branches, in particular) to conjure up whatever’s necessary; a miniature house, for example, stands in for a full-sized one. A highlight to wait for is when the actors conjure up a cyclone (yes, that one). The versatile company is also kept busy creating all the sounds and using miniature flashlights for special effects.
Catherine Clark and Jamie Roderick’s evocative lighting is precisely what the poignant, albeit occasionally humorous, material demands, just as are Molly Seidel’s backwoods-type period costumes and Edward W. Hardy’s folksy, almost nonstop violin music, played by Naomi Florin. The Woodsman is ensemble theatre at its best, but that doesn’t disguise the fact that in James Ortiz, a lanky young Abe Lincoln-type with a memorably unruly shock of hair, it has a special kind of genius at its helm.
New World Stages
340 West 50th Street, NYC
Through May 29
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).