A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Theater 5, New World's smallest stage (199 seats) has been transformed into the dark world of Frank Baum's Oz, its look and sounds evoking a shadowy forest. Vintage photos (including one with a map of Oz Land) line the walls all around the orchestra which intensifies the sense that you're in for an unusual, immersive experience. Everything that happens during the next 75 minutes does indeed fit right in with these evocative sights and sounds.
The woodsman of the title is of course the Tin Man immortalized by Jack Haley in the annually broadcast movie adaptation of Frank Baum's novel The Wizard of Oz.. But park your memories of Haley's Tin Man, Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion and Ray Bolger's Scarecrow merrily tripping down the yellow brick road with Judy Garland's Dorothy. James Ortiz has tapped into Baum's writings to present the back story of how Nick Chopper, the lusty flesh and blood ax wielder, was transformed into the Tin Man without a heart .
The multi-talented Ortiz (writer, co-director, puppet designer as well as main character player) has created a hauntingly beautiful, spectacularly imaginative adult theater piece. Let me emphasize that "adult" before going any further. Even the youngest recommended age of 8 might be too young for sensitive kids who don't relish anything violent and scary.
Except for a prologue by Ortiz, the story is told wordlessly. However, it's simple enough to follow, in this case the exquisite imagery and staging being as good, if not better, than thousands of words. To sum up what happens: The Wicked Witch (played by both Amanda Lederer Sophia Zukoski) is terrorizing the Munchkins. One couple (Will Gallacher and Lauren Nordvig) do manage to culminate their love, build a home and have a son who turns out to be Ortiz's Nick Chopper. But when Nick tries to replicate the happy life of his parents the witch roars forth. It also turns out that Nimmee (Eliza Martn Simpson) the girl he falls in love with is the witch's slave. To get her back the old meanie puts a curse on Chopper's axe which leads to his losing his limbs one by one and also his heart. Of course as every Wizard of Oz fan knows, the ending will have a new beginning courtesy of Dorothy's arrival.
In lieu of fancy, technical stagecraft we have mesmerizingly eerie Bunraku puppets, sound effects and composer Edward W. Hard's music performed by violinist and music director Naomi Florin. The 9-member ensemble, most of whom do double duty as actors-singers-puppeteers,takes us through the trajectory of the woodman's doomed love story and heartbreaking transformation.
Feelings of joy and fear are conveyed with gestures, movements utilizing simple props, grunt-like sounds. The occasional folk song, is nothing like the peppy ditties of the movie but is in perfect keeping with the darkness of this Munchkin world.
For all the eeriness and Nick Chopper's destiny as the tin man without a heart, The Woodsman has its lighter, more heart warming than heart breaking moments. The love affair of Chopper Nick's parents is whizzed through delightfully and amusingly — from their courtship, to the building of a house with a few chop-chops of the axe, to their baby being born and metamorphosing into a handsome young man. Still, if this weren't a prequel to a more upbeat story to come, it might be too downbeat. Fortunately, even without a Judy-like surprise finale , the unique, eye-popping and orally gripping staging on display makes The Woodsman well worth a visit.
While some of the producers listed above the current program's title have probably come aboard since the earlier production to make this longer life in Manhattan possible, The Woodmsan remains a show that is fueled by imagination and talent rather than multi-million-dollars invested in technical wizardry. The wizard — or rather wizards — here are Ortiz and all his colleagues.