This dark tale much like the stories of the Brothers Grimm takes place in the Eastern portion of Oz where fear is rampant, so much so that its inhabitants have given up speaking and communicate by sounds (created by the cast.) Ruled by the Wicked Witch of the East (a truly scary puppet manipulated by Amanda A. Lederer and Sophia Zukoski) who is accompanied by spine-chlling crows, its forests are the home of monsters like Kalidah (Benjamin Bass and Lauren Nordvig) who is half tiger and half bear. Nick Chopper (Ortiz) is brought up in the forest by his loving parents (Nordvig and Will Gallacher). When he reaches adulthood, he takes over from his father as Woodsman.
At their passing, he is lonely until he meets the beautiful Nimmee (Eliza Martin Simpson), slave to the Wicked Witch. They run away to the forest together. However, the Witch exacts her revenge and enchants his ax so that each time he attempts to build them a house, he loses another body part. Luckily, a dexterous and resourceful tinker is able to build tin replacements – which we see as parts of a life-size puppet being created before our very eyes. But what happens when the Woodsman, now The Tin Man, has lost his heart?
The forest setting by Ortiz seems to envelop the audience as does the sound design which is created by the actors in tandem with violinist Naomi Florin who plays Edward W. Hardy’s melancholy original score throughout the evening. The impressive Bunraku-style puppets are the work of Ortiz who seems to be a one-man theater corporation able to do everything required himself including his co-direction with Claire Karpen. The only wrinkle is that at times it is a bit confusing as to what is happening since after the opening prologue there is no dialogue and some of the mime is ambiguous. However, the show with folk-style backwoods costumes by Molly Seidel and atmospheric lighting by Catherine Clark & Jamie Roderick is always theatrical, always hypnotic.
The non-puppet characters are fine at communicating their emotions. Ortiz is heroic and bigger than life as Nick Chopper who refuses to be beaten by the Wicked Witch. Simpson’s Nimmee is a heartfelt, fervent performance. As Nick’s parents, Nordvig and Gallacher are tender and compassionate. The three tinkers played by Gallacher, Alex J. Gould and Lederer always arrive like a deus ex machina and gets laugh at their timeliness and ingenuity. Aside from the actors who impressively manipulate the life-size puppets, the entire cast helps make up the community of Eastern Oz.
The dark nature of the show and the lack of lucidity in the storytelling suggest that this is not for children who are not sophisticated to the ways of mime, puppetry and theater. Otherwise, this is an extraordinarily unusual performance piece suitable for those who still have the ability to wonder at the strangeness of another world.
The Woodsman (through May 29, 2016)
New World Stages, 340 W. 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.thewoodsmanplay.com
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission