The Wizard of Oz was the first novel that James Ortiz’s mother read to him as a child. Ortiz, cofounder of the theatre company Strangemen & Co., is now a theatremaker and puppet designer, and he’s still a big fan of Oz.
Frank Baum’s stories had an emotional impact on Ortiz, particularly the origin story of the Tin Man. “I think that for people who have read the first book—there is a weird sense—the Tin Man’s story is the one that haunts you, it is the one that stays with you,” says Ortiz. And puppetry seemed to be the right vehicle for Strangemen & Co. to explore the Tin Man’s enigmatic past onstage.
Enter Strangemen & Co.’s The Woodsman, a visceral, theatrical experience that uses puppetry, music, and movement to recount the story of the Tin Man, inspired by a short paragraph in Baum’s novel. The show is playing at New World Stages through May 29. Ortiz stars as Nick Chopper—the Tin Man—who opens the show with a brief introduction to the world of Oz, and the rest of the show is performed sans words, except for a few lyrics accompanying original music played on a violin by Naomi Florin.
“I found my way into puppetry and into theatre, and I was super curious if a puppet can be as dynamic and alive as an actor,” says Ortiz. “Can it be—and I mean this in the not laughable way—can it be the CGI of theatre? Can we do heightened stuff onstage and be as dynamic as an actor? And I didn’t know the answer to that. This was the opportunity to try those questions out.”
An ensemble of actors and puppeteers complete the cast, playing the Tin Man, the Witch, and the Kalidah beast. Sounds and innovative staging tell the story of how a woodsman falls in love with the witch’s slave—and how the disapproving witch curses the woodman’s ax, leading to his own dismemberment. A group of tinkers construct his new tin limbs, forming the star of the show—the woodsman puppet.
Two hours before curtain on a Wednesday afternoon, Ortiz meets with two of the shows leads: Amanda A. Lederer who plays the Witch, and Eliza Martin Simpson who portrays Nimmee, the witch’s slave and Nick Chopper’s lover. The three sit in the house of the theatre, which is adorned with tree branches above the aisles and mason jars filled with lights hanging from the ceiling. And the walls are covered with old black and white photographs, which look like decoupaged daguerreotypes, fittingly printed on wood.
The intimate set, designed by Ortiz, played an important role in the creation of the show: Ensemble members were asked to bring in photographs for character exploration.
“We really needed to find who those people were and honor some sense of the turn of the century, Americana, frontier spirit of what Baum was writing about,” Ortiz says.
Lederer excitedly says, “I have a bunch of aunts and great-great grandmothers on the wall.”
Simpson chose a photo of a young girl to be inspiration for the backstory of her character Nimmee. Among the portraits of real-life ancestors and character studies are also photographs of L. Frank Baum as a child, and other Easter eggs for Oz fanatics.
Although the story is borrowed entirely from Baum’s world, some questions about the Tin Man, Nimmee, and the characters of Oz were left unanswered.
“Everyone in this cast was involved in the making of it—anytime that we brought anybody in to be a part of the show, they added something,” says Ortiz.
Simpson, who first came on as Nimmee in The Woodsman when the show was at 59E59, had to fill in lots of gaps because her character’s mentions in the book were small.
“I had fun exploring because I had a lot of questions that I could answer,” says Simpson. “Who is this person if you’re kind of raised by this evil magic? What do you know of the human world? I worked with the idea of being a feral creature, without human conditioning or social skills. There was a lot of fun in figuring out how to communicate without words or without any kind of common rules.”
Ortiz, who also co-directed the show with Claire Karpen, described the process of helping to create the character of Nimmee as playing an ongoing, bizarre game of Jenga.
The show is made up of many simultaneous group breathes and physical shapes.
“We are physicalizing subtext most of the time, so we have to make sure that we all know what we are talking about,” says Ortiz.
And for this production, precision has been key in streamlining the story. “This run got very specific,” says Lederer, who has played the witch puppet since the show’s beginnings. “How do you differentiate between the scary sounds of the forest and the scary sounds of the ax? What is the intention in your breath and how does that change your vocal quality and movement?”
Lederer, who puppeteers the witch alongside Sophia Zukoski, also uses breath and sound to communicate with Zukoski in controlling the puppet.
The ensemble worked to honor Baum’s text while answering some of the open-ended questions in the story for the audience.
“The ensemble likes to think of ourselves as munchkin storytellers,” says Simpson. “It’s like every year we come together to tell the story of our history and we put it on like a passion play. And this is our history,” she says as she points to the hundreds of photos.
In many ways, the production really is like an annual tradition. In its four years of existence, the show’s content and audiences have both grown with new productions almost every year.
“Because the play comes back again and again, it is the little play that could,” says Simpson. “We kind of pull our community back together to tell it, it is a lot like if this was a ceremony that we did once a year.”
In line with tradition, the cast has its own pre-show ritual with a group warm-up and a huddle.
“Before we go onstage, when we get the places call…” says Simpson excitedly.
“You’re not allowed to share all of it…don’t give away all the magic!” pipes in Lederer.
Ortiz joins in: “We then say a quote from a book that was talking about Baum, it distilled all of Baum’s work into a sort of mantra and said that everything that he wrote was really these three things— ‘Be kind, be brave, and keep moving forward.’”
“Then we put our hands in the middle and we say ‘To Oz!’ says Simpson.
Last week, the show announced a closing date of May 29.
“The show itself is a journey, and it doesn’t even end—the shows ends with the promise of the next journey,” says Simpson, alluding to Dorothy Gale’s entrance at the end of The Woodsman.
“Everybody brings something back that they have gathered along their own journey,” says Lederer about each remount of the show. “Which is why it is exciting to see where we go next…”
But first, it’s off to Oz.