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Directed by James Ortiz and Claire Karpen,
at New World Stages, 340 W. 50 St., NYC.
Originally produced and developed by Strangemen & Co., who perform in the current production.
Opened Feb. 8, 2016 – open run.
Schedule: Monday at 8pm, (Tuesday dark), Wednesday, Thursday & Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2:30pm & 8pm and Sunday at 3pm &7:30pm. Tickets are on sale via www.Telecharge.com (212.239.6200) and at the New World Stages box office: $45 - $85.
Reviewed by Glenda Frank.
James Ortiz (Nick Chopper). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
"The Woodsman," a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz," is a dark dance-theatre exploration of love, loss and transformation. It lasts 75 minutes (no intermission) and covers two generations of woodsmen who find their beloved, build their homes, and change. Interesting concept, and the production is a piece of theatre magic, woven from movement, sound design, lighting, props and the delicate accompaniment of Naomi Florins’ violin (original, marvelously eclectic music by Edward W. Hardy). The puppets are magnificent, but this is not a story for children. Tweens, however, might love it. Think "Edward Scissorhands" without the Disney overlay.
The play opens with a light, comic touch and deft directorial touches, especially the telescoping of time. In the first generation, she (Lauren Nordvig) surprises him (Will Gallacher) with a spontaneous kiss, and he responds with joy, passion, and the icon of a miniature home. In the next generation, Nick Chopper, their gawky son, (James Ortiz) saves the nimble Nimmee (Eliza Martin Simpson) from the Kalidah (a tiger-faced bear) and offers her his heart, a large red pendant on a chain. When the wicked witch, her employer, demands the gift from her, the cowed girl finally stands up for herself, then flees to find Nick. They build a home, but the witch has cursed the woodsman’s ax and bit but bit it cripples him as he works. Strange figures wearing lab goggles restore his limbs until he becomes all metal. Abashed, he rejects her and finds consolation in his work. Then Dorothy arrives, the house falls on the Wicked Witch of the East, and Dorothy flees up the aisle of the theatre.
The Woodsman..Photo by Emma Mead.
Directors James Ortiz and Claire Karpen breathed life into everything. The set design (James Ortiz) – bare branches and back wall planks that create a deep wood – extends past the stage. On stage, actors hold out menacing tree limbs as the characters make their way through the forest. Part realistic, part horror film, the trees are one obstacles that the woodsman must continually overcome. More frightening are the monsters, the Kalidah and the witch, both extraordinary, life size puppets (designer Ortiz) that are manipulated by several performers. Despite having seen my share of stage and film witches, I was astonished at how real this witch seemed in her gestures, her gait, her menace. Her companions are dangerous crows, also manned by puppeteers. They fly, surround characters, and even flap one wing in a commanding come-hither gesture to Nimmee. The scenes with the puppets transpose us to a shadowy surrealistic world that reminded me of "Into the Woods."
Equally impressed is the lighting design by Catherine Clark and Jamie Roderick. Nimmee opens an imaginary curtain and sunlight floods in. The witch shouts to her and she closes the curtain, leaving the "room" in darkness. In the woods, she and Nick Chopper are seated near a fire. The glow from its embers as they extend their feet and hands to the warmth is as vivid as any actual camping scene. At night, they are visited by fireflies (small flashlights held by cast members) which move in random patterns across the stage. Nimmee captures one (the flashlight goes out) and then releases it. The threatening off-stage thunder of the witch’s wrath is, of course, accompanied by lightning.
Will Gallacher (left Tin Man puppeteer), James Ortiz (center, as the Tin Man/Nick Chopper) and Elizza Martin Simpson (right, as Nimmee). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Every detail of the production receives careful attention. The costumes by Molly Seidel (original costumes by Carol Uraneck) are essentially shades of grays, which is suitable for both puppeteers and peasants, but the distinctive design details are vivid enough to delight. They drape beautifully. The transformation of the woodsman into the Tin Man is a drama in itself. The plight of Nick Chopper resonates beyond the world of fairy tales to become an allegory for the returning war wounded.
Because "The Woodsman" is a prequel to the history of the Tin Man, the story itself does not end when the lights come up. We leave the theatre wrapped in the prequel’s despair, which begins his journey to Oz, but imaginatively we know the comedy – the final healing. "The Woodsman" offers us the best of several worlds plus puppets as interesting as those in "War Horse" at Lincoln Center.
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