After limited runs at Ars Nova and 59E59 Theaters, Strangemen & Co.’s production of “The Woodsman” is back on the boards. There’s a haunting beauty about this dark puppet show, created by James Ortiz, the writer, co-director, puppet master and star of the current production at New World Stages. This eerie prequel to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” reveals how the Tin Woodman (as he’s known in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books) lost his heart — not to mention all his body parts — when the Wicked Witch of the East put a curse on his ax.
Although most of the show is in wordless puppet-speak, a narrator (Ortiz, who owns this show) addresses the audience long enough to put the story in perspective. The wicked witch who rules over the eastern provinces of Oz, he informs us, has made a sad and sorry place of her kingdom. The woods are inhabited by monsters, the witch’s spies are everywhere, and people are afraid to speak their thoughts out loud.
Words have literally become dangerous in the kingdom, so everyone stops talking and now communicate in non-verbal grunts, groans, squeaks, squeals and whistles. They laugh, they cry, they clap their hands, and make all kinds of weird noises — but they truly do not speak. The only other sound is the expressive but rather hectic violin playing of musician Naomi Florin. The music is not unpleasant, just relentless.
Even at 70 minutes, this cacophony of non-speech could drive a person crazy, a reminder that one of the joys of puppetry is its eloquent silences.
Despite the dangers, a brave woodsman named Nick Chopper (Ortiz again, carrying an ax) and his bride, Nimmee (Eliza Martin Simpson), make their escape through the haunted woods and into a happy place where Nick can chop down trees and build a home.
The malevolent witch is not to be outwitted, however. She puts a curse on the woodsman’s ax, directing it to (here comes the good part) chop off his limbs, one by one. But as fast as the ax shears off a limb, a clever tinker (Amanda A. Lederer) fashions a prosthesis made of tin. The woodsman’s head is the last to go, but when it does, the transformation is complete and the Woodsman has become the Tin Man.
The puppeteers are proficient and the effects are exquisite. The witch flies in on a bad wind, always in the company of the evil-looking crows that serve as her eyes and ears. But the life-sized tin puppet of the woodsman (tenderly manipulated by Ortiz) is heartbreaking.