The Woodsman

by Marcus Scott

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday February 12, 2015

The Woodsman

Dedicated to producing "innovative and experimental work to the under-served East Side of Manhattan," 59E59 Theaters has a way with bringing restrained, thought-provoking small-scale effort to the theatrical stage. However, while this hour-long production of "The Woodsman" offers spit-shined sophistication and some astonishing performances, it feels almost truculent to nitpick, but a rather a substantial shortcoming remains: The whimsical storytelling is left indistinguishable and dashed with too many loose ends, whilst the topsy-turvy visual language lingers. That's not to say it isn't bewitching.

That old black magic called amour chronicles the lives of a two star-crossed lovers in James Ortiz's "The Woodsman," a spellbinding reimagining of L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" novels. However, when the hurly-burly is done, a heartless battle's lost and won.

Following the life and times of Nick Chopper (a wide-eyed James Ortiz), a Munchkin making an honest living cleaving down trees in the enchanted forests of Oz like his father and mother before him, the lumberjack haplessly falls head over heels for Nimmee (an alluring Eliza Simpson), the barefoot beauty and slave girl of The Wicked Witch of the East. Eventually, the pair was betrothed.

Faithful to Tin Man's backstory, the fable transitions to the couple ensnared in the witch's clutches as she conspires to foil their inevitable nuptials. As punishment on the serf girl, the sorceress enchants Nick's axe to sever his limbs, one by one. Nick is only driven either by his desire to make a home for his blushing bride-to-be (like his father before him) or is cursed to continue until he's done for. Each time a limb is chopped off, Nick replaces them with tin prosthetics, until he is entirely composed of tin.

Obviously, this causes a riptide in their relationship and uncompromising and sanctimonious Wicked Witch of the East (unnamed in this adaptation) seems to have scaled away unpunished, although her only apparent vulnerability is an aversion to sunlight. While Nimmee finds her voice to escape the witch, Nick is left heartless and abandons all hope.

He ultimately meanders through the wildernesses of Oz's tragic kingdom until he's caught in a rainstorm and left to rust. Directed by Claire Karpen and Mr. Ortiz, like Stephen Schwartz's "Wicked" or Disney's "Oz, The Great and Powerful" before them, "The Woodsman" generates enough visual eye-candy for the theatre aficionado to feast. However, there's not a hint of Technicolor or saturated hues.

Glowing like stardust in the distance, the celebrated Emerald City, where the Wizard has recently crash-landed, is symbolized by a cluster of green-lit mason jars suspended in midair; the woods are represented by two branches on each side of the stage. The ruthlessly inventive Strangemen & Co. production also acts a movement concerto with shadow play and puppets, designed by Renaissance man, Ortiz.

In the short length of the fable, audiences are introduced to the rasping and wheezing silver-haired Wicked Witch of the East (an in sync Amanda A. Lederer and Sophia Zukoski), decked out in a dowager's countess gown and wearing an austere grimace on her senescent face at all times; wing-flapping crows as black as midnight taking flight; and a fear-inducing, golden-eyed leviathan that brings to mind a hodgepodge between polar bear and saber-tooth tiger.

What's more startling, conversely, is that the show is mostly speechless and while the puppetry and the theater wizardry are in full effect throughout the performance, it is Edward W. Hardy who shines brighter than any pair of silver shoes. The composer-violinist manifested a minimalist score all-pervading within the totality of the show; each note adds subtext or tension to every moment. He also uses the ensemble of nine actors majestically, with the troupe refabricating noises of the forests via choral vocals or handmade percussion by cracking knuckles, snapping fingers, hand clapping, shaking metallic fibers to generate the sound of thunder or blowing softly to create dreadful wind effects.

The hums of violin is met with Quaker hand gestures and are underscored with hymns influenced by Appalachian music, a capella and Hitchcock cinema, offering a new POV to the humble working class of Oz (the expressive Alex J Gould, Meghan St. Thomas and Ben Bass). With the baritenor of Will Gallacher (comic gold as Father/ 1st Tinker) and the airy soprano of Lauren Nordvig (as an enduring Mother) by Hardy's side singing in unison, the soundscape becomes the meat and potatoes in the dark cauldron of this enthralling, though slight show that could be longer if only to get to its deeper meaning.

In this case, don't fear the wicked, fear the storyteller.

"The Woodsman" runs through February 22 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. For information or tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit