BWW Reviews: THE WOODSMAN Ventures Into Enchanting Visual Storytelling in the Land of Oz

By: Jan. 19, 2015

Like the blockbuster hit about a misunderstood green witch from the West, "The Woodsman" at 59E59 Theaters introduces audiences to a lesser-known tale from the land of Oz. The production relies heavily on visual spectacle to tell the story of a young woodsman who falls in love with a slave girl, only to be punished by the Wicked Witch of the East, who bewitches his ax to befell his limbs one-by-one until all that remains is tin. Written by James Ortiz and co-directed by Ortiz and Claire Karpen (who is concurrently performing as Cinderella in another forest-centric production of "Into the Woods" at Roundabout Theatre Company), "The Woodsman" is a creative delight and distinctive in its use of non-verbal storytelling. The forest in these woods has a very natural feel, as the ensemble employs real branches on the stage. Yet Ortiz's incorporation of his original puppetry designs in the shows adds a mystical element.

"The Woodsman" makes for a visually stunning production. Though the set design is simple, the added visual elements transform the intimate stage of Theater B at 59E59. Ortiz's puppets are a wonder to behold and are perhaps the most unique component in this production. When Nick, the Woodsman (also played by Ortiz, who deftly and sweetly handles the role), and his love, Nimmee (the delicate and delightful Eliza Simpson) are pursued by the mighty Kalidah in the woods, it requires several ensemble members to manipulate the mighty bear puppet with the face of a tiger. This imposing figure makes quite a mark on the stage. So too does the Wicked Witch of the East, whose face is truly terrible, and on whom Sophia Zukoski bestows the most deliciously strange of sound effects, with assistance operating the puppet from Amanda Lederer. And, of course, this production would not be complete without the Tin Man himself, who comes to life onstage initially piece by piece and by show's end, becomes a life size figure with movable limbs. These spectacular visuals certainly swept me up in the story. While I was hesitant at first about the lack of dialogue in "The Woodsman," the reliance instead on these other storytelling elements and the use of vocals makes for a lovely amusement. And the few words uttered and sung in "The Woodsman" become all the more powerful next to those unsaid.

With honest performances by the entire ensemble and with a simpler façade, "The Woodsman" makes for a refreshing theatrical experience next to shows of grander scale and with more reliance on technology. "The Woodsman" possesses true artistry and will make L. Frank Baum fans - or just those familiar with the 1929 MGM film - look at the land of Oz with renewed delight, down to the sparking silver slippers donned by the Witch puppet.

"The Woodsman" plays Theater B at 59E59 Theaters through February 7. Tickets are $30. or 212.753.5959 x102.

Photo Credit: Hunter Canning