Strangemen & Co.'s The Woodsman was already a theatrical force when it opened at 59E59 Theaters nearly one year ago. Now, back in New York for a second run at the same venue, the intoxicating charm and artistry of this off-Broadway diamond in the rough are only more radiant than they were the first time around.
L. Frank Baum's The Tin Woodman of Oz — the lesser-known backstory of The Wizard of Oz's "Tin Man" — provides the source material for this hour-long performance piece. Before skipping down the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy Gale, a woodman named Nick Chopper falls in love with a beautiful young Munchkin, Nimmee — a slave to the Wicked Witch of the East. When the Witch discovers their romance, she places a spell on Nick's axe to turn against him, removing his limbs one by one as he attempts to build a home for his beloved wife. After each incident, a merry band of Tinkers rebuilds Nick's severed body parts until every organic piece of him has been replaced with metal.
James Ortiz — the show's title character, set designer, and codirector (alongside Claire Karpen) — uses his many creative hats to weave a near-seamless story, told almost entirely without dialogue. Ortiz sets the bucolic scene of Munchkin Country in an opening monologue, but the subsequent narrative is told primarily through movement and wordless interactions set to a violin underscore (beautifully textured folk music composed and performed by Edward W. Hardy).
Technically speaking (and for lack of a punless term), The Woodsman is a well-oiled machine. Amanda A. Lederer and Sophia Zukoski move as one, jointly puppeteering as the grotesque Witch; Lederer, Will Gallacher, and Alex J. Gould become the joyfully synchronized team of tinsmiths, percussively rebuilding our protagonist before our eyes; and Ortiz gradually hands over much of his own movement to the team tasked with operating his new limbs. The performers share a common breath as they collectively establish the show's meticulously designed rhythms. However, just as no measure is left un-choreographed, no moment is left without emotional intention, creating an efficient engine that powers a robust heartbeat.
Ortiz and Eliza Simpson are at the core of this pulse as Nick and Nimmee, the main characters of the tragic love story. Small yet infinitely endearing moments are built into the pair's early meetings, which the actors perform with captivating tenderness and humor. A simple tree-chopping lesson and innocent play with shadow puppets unassumingly establish the profound love that motivates Nick's ultimate sacrifice. Simpson's striking performance gives us a peek through Nick's love-fogged goggles. From the anguish in her interactions with the Witch to her spot-on comic coyness with her adored woodman, she boasts an impressive range of emotions through her abundantly expressive and magnetic physicality.
Irrational though Nick's sacrifice still may seem, stories of rational, ordinary behavior are not the allure of fantastical tales like those that spring from the Land of Oz. The Woodsman finds the point of intersection between the organic and the imagined that indulges us in everything gruesome and grand that fairy tales have to offer.