It begins with a breath, a glance and an unfurling world both familiar and unknown. “The Woodsman,” currently playing at New World Stages, is gorgeously enchanting from the second you enter the space. After numerous popular “The Wizard of Oz” spin-offs, one may come to “The Woodsman” with suspicion. After all, The Gershwin Theater, where “Wicked” has been playing for the last 12 years, is a mere block away. However, the Strangemen Theater Company does a fantastic job of reinventing the tale of how the Tin Man came to be.
Nick Chopper, the story’s titular protagonist, is raised to follow in his wood-chopping father’s footsteps. When he stumbles upon a beautiful girl one day in the dark, dangerous forest, they fall in love. Their relationship faces obstacles both magical and natural. A few curses and amputations later, Nick Chopper becomes the Tin Man we know and love. The story plays on common knowledge of “The Wizard of Oz” tale, leaving in Easter eggs such as the glowing green lights of the Emerald City and the Witch’s silver slippers.
“The Woodsman” is helmed by jack-of-all-trades James Ortiz, who created, co-directed, set and puppet designed this production. He is an exceptional storyteller, playing the narrator at the beginning of the piece and Nick Chopper for its remainder. Most importantly, Ortiz has beautifully crafted a mystical world of enchantment, surprises and refreshingly minimalistic storytelling alongside co-director Claire Karpen.
The most unique aspect of this production is that Ortiz’s opening narration is one of the last spoken words the audience hears. Ortiz and Karpen employ wordless storytelling, puppetry and stylized physical acting to tell Nick Chopper’s story. The Wicked Witch, a beast in the forest and ultimately the Tin Man are portrayed through life-sized puppets, operated and voiced by actors.
Characters new to the world of Oz include Nimmee, a slave of the Wicked Witch and aforementioned love interest of Nick Chopper. Played with sensitivity and strength by Eliza Martin Simpson, this character stands out as a headstrong female counterpart to Nick Chopper.
As “The Woodsman” is an ensemble-based production, the entire cast stays onstage for most of the play, dressed in simple Munchkinland garb and inhabiting the role of storytellers. They construct most of the play’s locations with props, operate the puppets and collectively create a layered soundscape with clicks of their tongue, animalistic whistles and heavy breathing. At times, this may seem a tad distracting and silly, but it is a testament to how every single ensemble member is utterly committed to telling this story and completely immersed in the land of Oz. By the time you take your seat at New World Stages, you will be too.
“The Woodsman” is currently showing at New World Stages at 340 W 50th St.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 22 print edition. Email Emma Gold at [email protected]