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Off Broadway Reviews

The Woodsman

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Will Gallacher, James Ortiz, and Eliza Martin Simpson
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Silence, precisely enough articulated, can indeed speak volumes. And it does, time and time again, in The Woodsman, the haunting, lovely, and unforgettable puppet-fairy-tale extravaganza that just opened at New World Stages. So well rendered is this astonishingly short (70-minute) but impossibly full show by James Ortiz (writing and direction) and Claire Karpen (direction) that you may be convinced that each performer is reciting pages of detailed monologues. But on the few occasions when an actor does use his or her actual voice to an express an idea, you'll be amazed at what you've been missing—and how, against the odds, you haven't missed it at all.

Ortiz, Karpen, and their remarkable company aren't exactly building their drama from whole cloth. You're familiar with the tale of Nick Chopper, even if you don't know him by that name or the flesh he wears as naturally and unassumingly as you or I do. You've met him before, perhaps in a number of different guises, including one ultra-famous movie and another lesser-known one or two, in a drastically different form in a certain megahit stage musical, and in a series of books that found its greatest fame and most rapt audience a century ago. Yes, he's the creation of the perennially beloved L. Frank Baum, who accompanied a certain young girl on a certain quest to a certain Emerald City, but who (as Baum outlined in his 1918 novel, The Tin Woodman of Oz), had a sadder and darker background than his cheerful interactions with Dorothy Gale might have led you to believe.

Nick was once smitten with a girl named Nimmee, who was the servant (perhaps "slave" is more appropriate) of the Wicked Witch of the East, she of the magical slippers. And when he fell afoul of her, he paid the ultimate price: his limbs, one by one, and eventually his torso, until all that remained was a body easily rustable metal body but nothing left to love Nimmee with. In other words, his story—like everyone's—began well before we came into the picture, but understanding it is the key to understanding Nick and his supreme sacrifice both before and after the fateful downpour that made him (almost) a permanent fixture in a particularly scary wood.

Realizing and respecting this, Ortiz and Karpen have pulled out every story-theatre stop to ensure we get it and him. Simple puppets become vicious crows, a terrifying Kalidah (a bear with the head of a tiger), or even the Witch herself, who flaps and flies around so haphazardly that you can't be positive she's not coming for you. Years—decades even—pass in the blink of an eye, as Nick's parents meet, fall in love, and raise him to have the hefty hands his father no longer possesses. Love is represented by a handheld model of a cozy house or by a clearing full of fireflies (so what if they're no more than a hundred tiny lights enclosed in Bell jars?). Invisible axes get stuck in invisible trees, forcing comedic (almost slapstick) responses to get them free. And though enchanted objects never leave the performers' hands, consummate skills and pinpoint-targeted lighting design ensure that objects seem to be floating about as if their own free will.

Of the many shows of this nature that have flooded New York stages in recent years, The Woodsman stands apart because none of this ever feels like a gimmick. From the opening scene, the stage full of Munchkins are invoking this performance the way they would any other grand oral tradition. There's a magical necessity about it all that's enhanced, even explained, by the puppets that represent complex, unknowable concepts in familiar terms, and the near-continuous violin music of Edward W. Hardy (played, expertly, throughout by Naomi Florin) that suggests a primitive, even tribal, language finding its natural form in our ears. The fable of Nick Chopper is something they have to tell us, and this heightened method is the only way (or at least the most vivid way) they know to do it.

There are no seams to be found in Ortiz and Karpen's production; the misty-mystical sets and puppets (which Ortiz designed), the sumptuously downscale costumes (by Molly Seidel, working from Carol Uraneck's original designs), and the creepy, incisive lighting (by Catherine Clark and Jamie Roderick), flow effortlessly into one another until the only thing on view is a complete world that establishes and obeys all its own precepts. In a couple of cases, particularly near the end (when Nick is becoming less Chopper and more chopped), even the laws of gravity appear to suspend themselves to maintain the auteurs' illusions, and you'll be perfectly happy to go along with the ride.

The cast, which Ortiz leads as Nick, is dynamite, and to a person they're utterly invested in crafting this universe. Though I was particularly taken with Ortiz's puffed-chest bravado (which is just waiting to be punctured), Eliza Martin Simpson's alluring innocence as Nimmee, Amanda A. Lederer and Sophia Zukoski as the Witch, and Will Gallacher as Chopper the Elder and a gleefully tinkering tinsmith, each and every actor is a rich, vital presence, and makes a major contribution at one time or another. Ortiz and Karpen, like the Munchkins themselves, waste nothing and no one.

Since I first encountered The Woodsman a year ago, it's only deepened and improved; a few minor design changes (likely to account for slightly more stage space) are all for the better, and what appears to be a clearer focus of Nimmee and the unloving figures she's torn between ups the stakes of the second half considerably. I remain unmoved, however, by the speeches at the beginning and end, interrupting the critical self-imposed wordlessness (the Witch can sense speech, thoughts, and motives) and delivered (ponderously and somewhat pretentiously) as though to set up the implicit importance of what you're about to watch with no question of misunderstanding. Do what you like with them, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels are never going to be, say, War and Peace or Ulysses.

But The Woodsman is a glorious epic of its own kind, and one that needs little or no explanation to work. When everyone is fully immersed in the business of bringing to life Nick's harrowing downfall, Nimmee's escape, or the ultimate fate of the dastardly Witch at the climax of an all-encompassing cyclone, words just get in the way. The stage pictures so lovingly painted by Ortiz and Karpen utter tens of thousands on their own that surpass what Ortiz can write and, in some ways, what Baum did. They cut right to the center of what it means to give passionately, lose in return, and face the prospect of redemption in the most unlikely of places, all while horror, humor, and history swirl around you. In other words, it's no mistake that this outwardly cool evening is, in fact, brimming with theatrical heart.

The Woodsman
Through May 29
New World Stages / Stage 5, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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