The Woodsman

by James Ortiz with Claire Karpen and Strangemen & Co.
Directed by James Ortiz and Claire Karpen
Featuring James Ortiz, Eliza Simpson, Edward W. Hardy
59E59 Theater B
January 30, 2014 (open February 5, 2014) — February 16, 2014
production web site

  • “A cerulean windmill twirls lazily in the breeze. People are working in the fields, all wearing blue. For in this country in the east of Oz — blue is the people’s color.”
  • “To no avail, he tried and failed to be the man he should / He loved her no more, so left, trudged back into the wood.”
(L-R) Will Gallacher, James Ortiz, Eliza Simpson (and at center, of course, the Tin Man). Image by Hunter Canning.
(L-R) Will Gallacher, James Ortiz, Eliza Simpson (and at center our completed puppet Tin Man). Image by Hunter Canning.

We can ask: do we need another theatrical re-telling of any of the Oz stories? I asked much this same question in 2007 upon viewing House Theatre’s Great and Terrible Wizard of Oz and came then to the same conclusion I come to after experiencing Strangemen & Co.‘s The Woodsman at 59E59 Theater B:  when the stories are addressed creatively and respectfully and gives us something new, yes we do.

Music and shadow and puppets and Foley sound creations using familiar tools (sheets of metal and voice and drumming) and swooping-whooshing-sighing bird puppet wings successfully and thrillingly haunt the Woodman world. L. Frank Baum‘s creation story of the Tin Woodsman  from the Wizard of Oz books is given a hand-held, rough-hewn, puppeteer’s treatment  here, with fabulous results. Rough planks on-end define the upstage boundaries, clear and green glass mason jars and bottles with bare wire elements illuminate from five differently purposed chandeliers arrayed around the theatre, branches reach down and draw us into this storytelling world, and music played by Edward W. Hardy on violin with words and lyrics by Jennifer Loring simply enchant. Wicked has asked us for over a decade to consider Oz from the perspective of the witches, before Dorothy enters the story. Strangemen & Co.’s The Woodsman offers a music-filled and movement-inspired consideration of the human man who becomes a man of tin, anticipating Dorothy’s arrival yet again.

Nine performers play multiple parts (e.g. one of the two female ensemble members is one of two puppeteers voicing and operating the old woman/witch puppet and is one of the tinsmiths who works on the man-to-tinman transformation and is a human who arrives in Oz at the end of the play), with carefully orchestrated, calibrated, choreographed movement and storytelling skill. The playwright and co-director  and woodsman-cum-Tin Woodsman James Ortiz begins with a monologue introducing us to the Land of Oz, its inhabitants, and their suffering at the hand of the Wicked Witch of the East — represented by both a flying puppet whirled around by a single puppeteer and the already referenced old woman operated by two handlers. Our woodsman Nick Chopper (James Ortiz) is born to two Oz inhabitants who have found refuge from the witch’s whimsical anger deep in a scary but protective forest. Nick learns the wood chopping trade from his dad, and carries on after both parents pass away. Nick falls in love with a young women (Eliza Simpson) who is an abused slave to the jealous witch. In spiteful vengeance, the witch casts a spell on Nick’s ax that causes it to chop off his limbs one by one, which he replaces with tin puppet parts, one by one. Ultimately we have a completely puppet tin woodsman, with additional stories to learn and tell. The woods haunt through shadows (lighting by Catherine Clark), branches and boxes that build environments (set and puppets designed by James Ortiz again), evil oppresses, young love is strong, a wild beast (masterfully executed in delightful puppet pieces) threatens at first then teaches each young lover to find his and her own voice.

An almost wordless theatrical experience, with an initial framing monologue, movement and music throughout, elegant puppeteering, and lovely lyrics delivered by the enchanting ensemble at the end. Spare, inspiring, moving, delightful theatre with sometimes handheld lighting and other simple shadow effects. Occasional moments inspire thoughts of the 1939 M-G-M evocation of the Oz world — e.g. an oil can that emerges to un-squeak Nick’s newly assembled arms makes the distinctive sound “cluck cluck” sound of the oil ministrations by Scarecrow and Dorothy to the 1939 film’s rusted Tin Man. These derivative moments are fun (my audience happily chuckled) and yet are far between. Strangemen & Co.’s delicate  fairy tale-telling wonder draws from some of the same raw materials as prior films and staged creations and still is all new, “great and terrible,” and simply marvelous.

Wicked Witch of the East's silver slippers in Strangemen & Co.'s The Woodsman.
Wicked Witch of the East’s slippers in Strangemen & Co.’s “The Woodsman” — in silver as they are in the Baum original stories. Image by Strangemen & Co.

© Martha Wade Steketee (February 5, 2014)

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