The Woodsman, a nearly wordless play with puppets that tells the story of how the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz lost both his human body and his heart, arrives at New World Stages after several previous runs that were praised as charming and magical. So why did I fantasize dousing the cast with a bucket of water?
I felt tremendous guilt about this mischievous urge to add a little slapstick to the noble artistry, which seems tantamount to kicking a litter of puppies, or, more precisely, tripping a mime. There is no question that Strangemen & Co.’s 70-minute staging of one of L. Frank Baum’s fairy tales is heartfelt, and beautiful to look at; that James Ortiz – who wrote the adaptation, designed the set and puppets, portrays the title character, and co-directs the production – is deeply talented; that the nine other performers, including violinist Naomi Florin, are a dedicated ensemble, who even breathe as if one: We see their unified breath at both the beginning and the end of the show.
After they breathe, in a brief prologue Ortiz poetically sums up L. Frank Baum’s tale, before they all act it out silently, accompanied by Florin’s persistently plaintive violin and an occasional dirge-like song (the original music is written by Edward W. Hardy). Nick Chopper (Ortiz) is a regular human being who is engaged to be married to a pretty Munchkin girl named Nimmee. But Nimmee (Eliza Simpson) is slave to the Witch (a striking puppet manipulated by Amanda Lederer and Sophia Zukoski.) The Witch disapproves of the couple’s love, and invests Nick’s axe with the magical ability to chop him to pieces. Friendly neighborhood Tinkers replace each body part as it is severed with a tin prosthetic, until the woods man has become the tin man (the second puppet). At the end, the tin man is stuck alone in one of the bare branches, but suddenly a house comes clattering onto the stage, and out of it pops a bright-eyed young girl.
It should be noted that Dorothy is wearing the original silver slippers rather than the ruby slippers introduced by Judy Garland. “The Woodsman” has too much integrity to allow any Hollywood touches into this dark tale. So everything is tasteful and inventive, languid and lovely, artistic and, to me, a tad tedious. It’s not their fault that I left feeling like W.C. Fields, wondering if Toto’s origin story is next.
New World Stages
By James Ortiz, adapted from L. Frank Baum
Music composed by Edward W. Hardy, lyrics by Jen Loring
Directed by James Ortiz and Claire Karpen
Set and puppet design by James Ortiz, costume design by Molly Seidel, lighting design by Catherine Clark and Jamie Roderick
Cast: Benjamin Bass, Devin Dunne Cannon, Will Gallacher, Alex J. Gould, Amanda A. Lederer, Aaron McDaniel, Lauren Nordvig, James Oritz, Eliza Simpson, Meghan St. Thomas, Sophia Zukoski
Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $45 to $85