This past Sunday I had the opportunity to see my first off-broadway play, The Woodsman! It’s based off of The Wizard of Oz, and focuses on the life of the Tin Man, before and during his transition to a tin man.
One of the most wonderful parts about the show was the puppetry. In addition to the fully-formed Tin Man expressed as a puppet, the wicked witch, the woodland bear/lion beast, crows, and other set pieces of the show were made into puppets. And yet, because of the intense attention to detail –I noticed, I was in the second row!–each of these characters felt very much alive and real. And even more magical, the play was performed with minimal dialogue.
When I first heard that there wasn’t any dialogue I really thought that this was one of those off-Broadway shows that would be impossible to follow. The brilliance of The Woodsman is that there was never a point where I lost the train of the story, or felt that the characters were flat and emotionless. Each emotion, action, and piece of the story was perfectly conveyed. I could sense each character’s fears and desires. What’s more, they were able to make me feel each of the emotions. The actors clearly worked well together, they moved in sync, especially during the woodland scene with the bear/lion puppet creature.
At one point, the wicked witch is on the hunt for her slave girl that ran away. The lights of the small New World Stages Theater (also the same theater that is home to Avenue Q), are completely dark and with the guttural growl that the audience becomes attuned to hearing from the witch, a sweeping mask on a stick flies through the air with a trail of silk. Am I describing a children’s play? Absolutely not, despite the minimalism of the prop, it is indeed terrifying as it sweeps over the audience and is looking for the lost maiden. It’s this intense atmospheric choice, and many other like it, that really encapsulate what makes the play so well acted and performed.
There is some explanatory dialogue in the beginning, to understand where we are in the land of Oz and the reason there is no talking in this world. The characters do sing, hum, laugh, grunt, sigh, and “speak” to each other in different ways. And the cast also served as the sound effects as well: bird calls, rain tapping, fire crackling, all improved the atmosphere and tone of each scene. There was one lone violinist who played accompanying music throughout the 75 minute play, each note set the tone for the scene. The minimalistic approach to the sound really made each piece of the play work so well together. I can’t emphasize enough how impressed I was with this form of storytelling.
And I would be remiss to mention that this is a great addition to the transmedia storytelling of The Wizard of Oz canon. Each adaptation that I have seen had made this world more full. A history of the Oz story: first a children’s book series by L. Frank Baum, then a stage play that was adapted into the feature film of The Wizard of Oz staring Judy Garland. From there, The Wiz, among other musicals, Wicked the book by Gregory Maguire, Wicked the musical, and now this story. It all fits so well together — though each creative media may not be “canon” I certainly appreciate how each interpretation of the story has made it’s way into American media.
If given the opportunity, I recommend seeing The Woodsman. It’s truly a work of art. I appreciate James Ortiz’s attention to each aspect of the story. I was drawn to his performance of the Tin Man because I felt much of the Tin Man’s pain as he was changing throughout the story. James Ortiz also created the play and the puppets, a true talent for making this play such a success.