'The Woodsman': Theater Review

The Woodsman Production Still - H 2016
Matthew Murphy

The Woodsman Production Still - H 2016

This minimalist but haunting theater piece is the anti-'Wicked.'

The backstory of the Tin Man from 'The Wizard of Oz' is told via movement, mime and puppetry in this off-Broadway show.

Perhaps you didn't know it, but L. Frank Baum actually wrote 13 sequels to his beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz. One of them, 1918's The Tin Woodman of Oz, provides the inspiration for James Ortiz's theatrical piece infused with Bunraku-style puppetry. Now receiving a commercial, open-ended off-Broadway engagement after two previous New York City runs, The Woodsman, like so many great fairy tales, is at once charming and disturbing.

The show is being presented a mere block away from the long-running Broadway smash Wicked, also inspired by Baum's classics. But it couldn't be more different. Lasting little more than an hour, it tells the backstory of the Tin Man via movement, mime and puppetry, with only a short prologue verbally setting up the action. It achieves great impact with minimal means, and its entire production cost probably wouldn't cover Wicked's wig budget.

The piece tells the story of Nick Chopper (Ortiz, who also wrote, co-directed and designed the set and puppets), a hardy young woodsman who makes the mistake of falling in love with Nimmee (Eliza Martin Simpson), the beautiful slave of the Wicked Witch of the East. The Witch — you'll recall, she eventually gets her just deserts when Dorothy's house falls on her — resents the intrusion and gets revenge by placing a curse on Nick's ax, which results in its chopping off a body part every time he tries to use it to build a house for himself and his love. And then…well, you know the rest.

The evocative mood is set even before the show begins, with the theater's walls covered in tree branches and tiny lights. And it's sustained beautifully throughout the virtually wordless piece, accompanied by a nearly constant, original folk music score composed by Edward W. Hardy, played by an onstage violinist. The excellent nine-person ensemble — most of them playing multiple roles, including Munchkins — operate the puppets, ranging from a nearly life-size, scary Witch to fluttering crows to exotic creatures.

Although the narrative is diffusely conveyed at times, many of the individual sequences are vividly rendered, most notably Chopper's gruesome transformation into the Tin Man. While lacking overt gore, it's truly the stuff of nightmares. The Woodsman is not really for children — although more sophisticated youngsters would certainly appreciate it — having more the feel of a Grimm fairy tale than the classic MGM musical. But unlike its tragic titular hero, it has plenty of heart.

Venue: New World Stages, New York
Cast: Benjamin Bass, Will Gallacher, Alex J. Gould, Amanda A. Lederer, Lauren Nordvig, James Ortiz, Eiza Martin Simpson, Meghan St. Thomas, Sophia Zukoski
Playwright, set and puppet designer: James Ortiz
Music: Edward W. Hardy
Lyrics: Jen Loring
Directors: James Ortiz, Claire Karpen
Costume designer: Molly Seidel
Original costume designer: Carol Uraneck
Lighting designers: Catherine Clark, Jamie Roderick
Presented by Robb Nanus, Rachel Sussman, Ryan Bogner, Adam Silberman, Leo Mizuhara, Brian Stuart Murphy, RJ Brown & Joe Carroll, Rebecca Black, Ellen Myers