L. Frank Baum wrote 13 original and canonical Oz books after the success of the first book in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) .Baum went on to write plays and musicals based on the Oz series and after he died, a host of other works some based on his work (the canon) and some elaborating an alternate Oz have been created. Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wicked Years) by Gregory Maguire, the book that was used to create the Broadway musical Wicked, is in the latter category.
The Woodsman, directed by James Ortiz and Claire Karpen and presented by Strangemen & Co. fits into the L.Frank Baum canon and is based on Baum’s little known and poignant writings. The play, currently being performed at 59E59 Theaters until February 16th, cleverly spins out the events which occurred prior to the Tin Man’s salvation by Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The Narrator (Ortiz) introduces the state of affairs after the Wicked Witch of the East lays siege to Munchkinland and enslaves the people of Blue, setting the scene for the action which is effected by the fantastic Bunraku puppetry and haunting melodies played by violinist Edward W. Hardy and composed by Hardy and Jennifer Loring (who also wrote the lyrics). The performers enact the background story of The Tin Man’s history and identity as The Woodsman before the Wicked Witch of the East’s placed a curse on him. We see his gentleness and loving heart bestowed and nurtured by his parents’ warm and affectionate upbringing. We are brought to the first of his heartbreaks: his mother dies when he is a young man. Then we appreciate his growth and maturity after his father passes. He has become a solid, resourceful, hard working individual. Though Nick Chopper is now alone, we understand he is a fine human being and has the makings of a hero and true lover.
These whisperings of spirit and foreshadowing of the future character of the Tin Man that will be in The Wizard of Oz are forged through his relationship with Nimmee. She is the slave-girl of the Wicked Witch of the East. He meets Nimmee in the forest during a tremendous and frightening adventure. How their relationship develops and how the Wicked Witch of the East becomes involved are the structure and revelation of the play’s plot and themes. Ortiz has managed to elevate the concept of identity, integrity, and soulfulness into the character of Nick Chopper with simplicity and sensitivity. The conclusion leaves us with the sad poignancy of devastated love and the faint light of hope. This is a perfect show for Valentine’s Day weekend and beyond.
The performers of Strangemen & Co. and their use of the amazing puppetry coupled with the haunting and minor key melodies lift up Ortiz’s well crafted rendition of The Tin Man’s story to truly powerful heights. The villains chillingly breathe evil. The spiritual anointed ones are ethereally envisioned. The artistic design of the forest, the land, and the Woods Man’s house are suggested with minimalistic grace. They convey an appropriate imagery that colors the phantasmagoria of this production making it exceptional and memorable. Their skills reveal the efforts of the finest of puppeteers.
As for the puppets? Fabulous constructions and animations. I was mesmerized by the creatures. The Wicked Witch of the East’s loathsomeness and her demonic nature symbolized in her flight as an all-encompassing, omnipresent evil is frightening. We believe her magical, supernatural powers. Those who enact her in voice and movement are superb; she is especially horrible in flight. I cannot praise enough the performers’ puppetry skills, voices, choral work, and use of the minimalistic set to trigger the power of suggestion in the audience’s imagination. This is an incredible interactive experience. You will remain engaged throughout connecting with the emotional currents and tragic story.
Kudos to the performers: James Ortiz, Benjamin Bass, Devin Dunne Cannon, Will Gallacher, Amanda A. Lederer, Aaron McDaniel, Eliza Simpson, Meghan St. Thomas, Carol Uraneck (who also was Costume Designer) and Edward W. Hardy, violinist.
The Woods Man will be running at 59E59 Theaters until February 16th.