BWW Review: THE WOODSMAN at Bluebarn Theatre Leaves Me Speechless
It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Bluebarn Theatre is proving this adage true with the Strangemen Theatre Company production of THE WOODSMAN running in collaboration with Omaha theater professionals at the Bluebarn Theatre through June 16. Based on L. Frank Baum's beloved Oz books, the story explains how the Tin Man came to be. THE WOODSMAN is unique in that the script is almost devoid of dialogue. Instead, the story is told through artful movement, sound effects, and incredible puppetry.
Words play an important part of the story even when they are not spoken. The Wicked Witch of the East is closely monitoring the Munchkins, causing them to refrain from speaking. Instead they communicate with unintelligible sounds and pantomime. I am reminded of the animals in WICKED being forbidden to use words. Words separate us from the animals. Words are dangerous. Words have power.
A prolific novelist, L. Frank Baum wrote 14 novels in his Wizard of Oz series. The first, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was produced in 1939 and televised annually. I remember as a little girl waiting for THE night it would be on, and crying the one year we were called away just as the movie began. The Wizard of Oz was magical. It swept us away with Dorothy in her Kansas farmhouse and took us to a land unlike anything we'd ever imagined. In the land of Oz, Dorothy and her dog Toto meet three friends, Scarecrow, The Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man. Each is missing some element to make him complete. The Scarecrow lacks a brain. The Lion lacks courage. The Tin Man lacks a heart.
In the words of the Tin Man, "the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth; but no one can love who has not a heart."
But how did the Tin Man lose his heart? In this gorgeous play by James Ortiz, a simple man aptly named Nick Chopper makes his living chopping trees. His father teaches him the skills of chopping by listening to his heart. He uses the beat of his heart to time the swing of his axe.
When Nick (Matthew Olsen) meets a nymph-like creature Nimmee (Anna Jordan) who is slave to the evil Witch of the East, he finds his heart also beats for her. He offers her love through the gift of his golden heart pendant. Their love is pure. But it is unacceptable to the malevolent Witch. She casts a spell on Nick's axe, causing it to attack him as he tries to chop wood. He loses his limbs in succession, his head, and finally the rest of himself. A goggled trio of amusing tinkers replace each missing part with a tin appendage, but they cannot replace his heart.
Directed by Strangemen Theatre Company's James Ortiz and Claire Karpen, THE WOODSMAN is a master work. The scenery, the lighting, the sounds, the music, the puppetry, and the actors' body language all work together to create a magical experience unlike anything out there. It is the equivalent of my annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz on TV. It is just different. And it's fabulous!
Scenic Artist Craig Lee has put together a minimalistic set that is multipurpose. Tree limbs, Mason jar lighting, boxes that transform into houses.. the pieces trigger our imagination and satisfy our desire for beauty. With inspired lighting designed by New Yorker Jamie Roderick, the entire space at the Bluebarn becomes an eerie forest, a warm hearth, the sinister habitat of a witch.
Add props by Amy Reiner. A quilt represents a babe in arms, a young child's blanket, a shawl covering the shoulders of an aging Ma Chopper (Stephanie Jacobson.)
Add the sounds that replicate birds, thunderstorms, crackling fireplaces-- all through actors' snapping fingers, clapping hands, grunts and whistles. At times the groaning or muted screams of the characters becomes nearly overwhelming, but the pleasant background sounds -those we may not notice if people are speaking- bring a measure of peace back into the cacophony.
Add the lonely strains of a single violin (Samantha Perkins). Her evocative notes fill the spaces left unfilled by words and communicate longing, fear, and joy. Edward W. Hardy (music) and Jen Loring (lyrics) have contributed a hauntingly beautiful accompaniment to this play which is carried out so expertly by Perkins and vocalist Moira Mangiameli.
It is possible that you may forget the puppets are not real. The murder of crows fly in on the wind with the Witch with a fury that is unsettling. The beast Kalidah, a cross between a tiger and a bear, is threatening as it lumbers across the set. Three actors (Michael P. Burns, Beau James Fisher, and Stephanie Jacobson) manipulate the beast's three sections with minutely timed coordination. It cannot be a simple task. The Woodsman puppet is an impressive piece of art in itself, having a human likability that pulls at our heart. It is not surprising that Ortiz won an Obie Award for his puppet design in 2016.
I spend much time watching facial expressions and body movement. Since there are no words in this production, the story must be told through the body language of the actors. This cast is sublime. Anna Jordan is ethereal. She is slight, so when Olsen lifts her, we can sense she is light as a fairy. She points her toes. Every movement is graceful as a ballerina. Jordan's entire performance is mesmerizing. Barefoot, garbed in a lovely bohemian looking dress designed with varying fabrics and hemlines (Costume Designer Jenny Pool), she is the expression of freedom in the role of a slave.
Ma and Pa Chopper (Barry Carman) are also gifted at using their bodies to tell the story. Carman shows good natured exasperation while teaching his son to chop; Jacobson epitomizes a mother by cleaning her son's face with her spit. They both age without becoming caricatures of the elderly.
Olsen displays good comedic timing as well as an impressive cross range of emotion as the Woodsman in his journey from joy to despair. When he realizes he cannot love without a heart, he succumbs to a life of repetitive chopping to dull the pain. You feel his pain.
If you have a heart, you will love this show. It's way too good to let it pass you by.
Photo courtesy of Bluebarn Theatre.