Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE WOODSMAN (Strangemen & Co.)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on January 18, 2015

in Theater-New York


The Woodsman, James Ortiz’s delightful and dark invention, which he stars in and co-directs with Claire Karpen, dramatizes the story of how the Tin Man of the Oz books, who started out human, came to be made of metal. It is a sad and wonderful tale of love and loss involving a handsome youth, a beautiful girl, a wicked old witch, a cursed axe, and a monster with the head of a lion and the body of a bear.

By Hunter Canning 3Using actors and puppets, mime and song, and accompanied by Edward W. Hardy’s haunting violin, which the musical director plays on stage as a character, Mr. Ortiz’s staging is vibrant, continually inventive, and often magical. Manipulated by members of the ensemble, everything in this enchanted world comes to glorious life. Clawing branches grasp and entangle forest travelers. Black crows—the witch’s minions—fly and shriek. An enormous monster comes crashing out through the trees. The witch cackles, casting spells and snatching at the girl Nimmee (Eliza Simpson). And the house, which the woodsman builds for his beloved, comes together in rhythm with the chopping of his axe. Watching it all, and especially the wicked witch, I found myself mesmerized, enthralled like a child. Ms. Simpson does an excellent job miming her part, and Mr. Ortiz—who also designed the set and outstanding puppets—is a dynamic and sympathetic presence.

The Woodsman Photo by Hunter Canning

It’s a marvelous show, but in places it could use some tweaking. The verbal setup in the beginning has to go; in fact the only word in the show that works is when Nimmee says “Help” to the munchkins after her beloved is in pieces. And when she does say it, it should be with real desperation. When the woodsman’s father (Will Gallacher) is teaching his son the craft of chopping down trees, Mr. Ortiz, in playing the son, acts less like an inexperienced boy and more like a mentally challenged young man, which doesn’t seem to be the intention.

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There are occasional moments when the physical storytelling isn’t as precise as it should be. The scene with the monster feels rushed. The love story between the woodsman and Nimmee, though what we see of it is lovely—especially when they flirt by making shadow creatures with their hands in front of a campfire—could use two or three more details. And the finale, though clever and funny, doesn’t quite gel emotionally with the climax.

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That said, when the show is taken as a whole these shortcomings amount to trifles drowned out by the production’s merits. The Woodsman is a joy, radiating a vibrant, youthful, loving energy and artfulness. And while it appears to be geared towards adults it would also make fine children’s theater—there’s nothing “inappropriate” for kids in this show, and nothing so scary that a well-adjusted eight-year-old wouldn’t be able to handle it—and its sophistication and sincerity are a welcome change from the patronizing mindless junk that comprises so much of children’s entertainment.

Additional cast: Ben Bass, Alex J. Gould, Lauren Nordvig, Eliza Simpson, Meghan St. Thomas, and Sophia Zukoski.

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The Woodsman
Strangemen & Co.
and Robb Nanus and Rachel Sussman
59E59 Theaters
ends on February 22, 2015
re-opened Off-Broadway on February 8, 2016
New World Stages
(performances began January 27, 2016)
ends Sunday, May 29, 2016
for tickets, call 212.239.6200 or visit Telecharge

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