The Woodsman, using actors, puppets, mime and music, gives us back story, based on not well-known writings of Frank Baum, on how the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz came to be: it’s a rich multi-media hour-long spectacle, but the story ends up pointless.
We’re in eastern Munchkinland where one tiny nuclear family finds a bit of freedom from the domination of the oppressive Witch by living self-sufficiently in a remote section of the woods, making a living by cutting trees. As the Mother and Father mature and eventually die, young Nick is left on his own, following in his father’s footsteps as a woodsman.
Setting out to find a wife, Nick comes upon — and fast falls in love with -– Nimmee, who turns out to be the evil Witch’s slave. Nick and Nimmee defy the Witch in order to fulfill their love but the Witch retaliates by turning his woodsman’s ax into a magically malevolent weapon that destroys him piece by piece and with stylized but graphic vividness (that some, like me, may find hard to take). Nick, you could say, gets lots more than a nick.
The talented actors shift roles and move in and out of working with the puppets in fluid fantasy. Author/director/set and puppet designer James Ortiz as the woodsman Nick meets various challenges effectively and realistically — and he sure can convey physical agony! In this play that is mostly wordless, Eliza Simpson expresses Nimmee’s range of emotions with exceptional subtlety. Crow puppets, darkly rising abruptly and rustling with foreboding, a woodland monster, and the wicked old-lady Witch are vivid and wittily designed and worked.
Edward Hardy’s evocative violin music, which he plays throughout, is a real strength of this production. Clicking fingers, grunts and clucks of the actors create a sometimes distracting (grunts) and often pleasing counterpoint to the violin.
There’s a lot here for puppet lovers, Oz lovers, and those interested in the narrative possibilities of live multi-media.
The Woodsman plays at 59E59 Street theaters in midtown Manhattan through February 22, 2015.