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Skinny fingered branches cling to walls and reach across the ceiling. Barren trees rise from a dappled forest floor. Clusters of Mason jars hold lights as if having captured fireflies. “Imagine if you will, a golden sun rising over a country of marvelous beauty…” We are east of Oz where Munchkins (normal sized human thespians) are ruled by the witch. THWAP! She suddenly appears whipping across the stage – THWAP! THWAP! extending into audience faces (a marvelously suggestive puppet) “…Other corners of Oz have been freed but not us… what hope is there for escape from evil?”

Ever wonder how the Tin Woodsman got that way? Not the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Disney Company, or Broadway musical Tin Woodsman, but L. Frank Baum’s original, deeply tragic and romantic character? Presented with evocative visuals and mostly wordless dramatization, this innovative production couples actors with breathtaking puppetry to tell the real back story.

Breathing as if one, the company alters mood with movement; adds to splendid live violin music and sound effects – you‘ll never hear a monster conjured like this – with bird voice, wind moans, and singing as well as playing villagers. Evil, ragged crows, the remarkable and malevolent witch, a fantastical monster and the extraordinary Tin Man (all Bunraku style characters), are brought to life by intensely focused puppeteers.

The Woodsman is a richly manifest, well told tale, skillfully paced, beautifully performed, and as accessible to kids (not too young) as to adults. Its idealized liaison (between the witch’s tortured servant Nimmee and a young forester who becomes the Tin Woodsman) is neither frothy nor twee. Gothic attributes remind me of Frankenstein.

Artistic choices are not merely arresting, but also emotionally affecting. Watching the small model of a promised house build itself in human scale is a buoyant experience. Nimmee’s hypnotic punishment by the witch and the woodsman’s alterations are empathetically painful.

Originator James Ortiz plays both narrator and the Tin Woodsman with grace and pathos. His speech is mellifluous, innocence embodied, the hero’s unconditional love believable. Ortiz looks like a cross between Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights and someone from a garage band. He might easily have a career solely as an actor but has, it seems, other talents and plans. An artist to be watched.

Eliza Simpson’s Nimmee is ethereal. The actress personifies anxious subservience and surprised-at-herself rebellion as well as she does womanly devotion. She moves like a dancer.

Carol Uraneck’s costumes are apt and harmonious. Catherine Clark’s lighting design is painterly. Music and lyrics by Jennifer Loring sound wonderfully folkloric. James Ortiz’s puppets and scenery are inspired.

There were 13 sequels to The Wizard of Oz. I’d venture to guess few of us are familiar with any of them. If this is any indication, a neglected treasure trove exists.

Note to audience: Glittering silver slippers make a brief appearance at the end of this piece. Judy Garland’s ruby slippers were a direct response from MGM’s desire to showcase the innovation of Technicolor. Baum himself makes no reference to red.

Photos by Hunter Canning Courtesy of the production

Strangemen & Co. presents
The Woodsman by James Ortiz
Directed by James Ortiz and Claire Karpen
Instrumental Music by violinist Edward W. Hardy
Set and Puppet Designer – James Ortiz

About Alix Cohen (1053 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.