Since 1939 when Judy Garland blew into Technicolor, L. Frank Baum's Munchkin Country (aka Munchkinland) has been associated with images of lollipops, ruby slippers, and whimsical characters joining the pigtailed Dorothy Gale on a merry jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road. Never mind the fact that these whimsical characters, in their literary incarnations, include a bird-murdering scarecrow, a lion whose quest for bravery leads him to a bottle of (wink, wink) liquid courage, and a woodsman who chops off all of his limbs with his own axe. The members of Strangemen & Co. have taken the jolting shock of color out of the story behind the latter of these three characters in The Woodsman, now at 59E59 Theaters — instead, accentuating its darker contours in a beautifully full-bodied sensory experience.
Rather than a land of vibrant pastels, set designer (as well as creator, codirector, puppet designer, and lead performer) James Ortiz has filled the stage with muted tones of brown surrounded by a row of trees that doubles as doors, setting the scene in a wooded forest. The grounded feeling of nature evokes the earthiness of Grimm Fairy Tales to which the moral and philosophical undertones of Baum's stories of Oz feel akin.
The story is told through a combination of movement and music — original compositions by Jennifer Loring sung in lulling chants by the company, along with mood-setting violin accompaniment composed and performed by the talented Edward W. Hardy. The piece incorporates very few spoken words, with the exception of a "once-upon-a-time"-esque opening monologue delivered by Ortiz. He soothingly sets the bucolic scene with descriptions of rolling green hills and blue farmhouses occupied by the Munchkin villagers (portrayed by a company of men and women of average stature), effectively loosening our imaginations like long unstretched muscles.
We then dive into the story of the tin woodsman, Ortiz now becoming our protagonist Nick (Nick Chopper in Baum's original tale The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). The crux of the tale is the love story that unfolds between Nick and a Munchkin girl named Nimmie (played by the beautifully expressive Eliza Simpson), who happens to be enslaved by the Witch of the East (at rest, a two-person operated puppet, and in flight, a whooshing cape attached to a grotesque face that is frequently jutted into the audience). As it turns out, illicit love affairs with boys from the woods are a no-no in the witch's book, so as punishment, she places a curse on Nick's ax to chop off his limbs one by one as he pushes forward in a futile attempt to build a home for himself and Nimmie.
The grace of the staging by Ortiz and codirector Claire Karpen is aesthetically captivating while also impressively precise in its storytelling. Credit is owed to lighting designer Catherine Clark as well for her part in bringing clarity to this primarily visual production — an increasingly complex task as the plot continues to thicken, along with the mounting pile of props (designed by Sarah Dowling). After meeting Nick as a small boy, the passage of time is cleverly illustrated by a montage of family portraits for which Nick and his parents pose through the years. The sequence in which Nick transforms into the familiar "Tin Man," aided by a conveniently on-call team of Munchkin craftsmen called "The Tinkers," is one of the production's most creative. Puppeteers attach themselves to Ortiz as they operate his mechanical arms, though Ortiz diligently maintains his character, never succumbing to any of the logistical distractions. Simpson's performance as Nimmie, however, wins our hearts (not to mention Nick's) with her tender vulnerability and innocence that perfectly suits the mythic yet organic quality of the story.
Yet beyond any individual performance, the sounds that resonate throughout the production are what leave the greatest impression. The flapping wings of a crow (maneuvered by another puppeteer), the snapping and cracking of an imaginary fireplace, the melody of Nick's frequently reprised chopping tune — each detail adds a rounded depth to what would otherwise be a thin folkloric tale. Though in the confines of such an intimate space you never quite lose yourself in the fantasy unfolding onstage, even an objective eye can appreciate the beauty of fine storytelling.