There’s precious little speaking in “The Woodsman,” an achingly beautiful play combining puppetry and music that purports to explain how the Tin Man, from the Land of Oz, lost his heart.
Most of what’s said aloud in the Strangemen & Co. show—now at New World Stages after several engagements around the city—transpires early, as a narrator introduces characters from the eastern provinces of Oz and warns of a witch, who flies crows around to spy on villagers and may even be able to read minds.
The speaker will turn out to be Nick Chopper, himself the future Tin Man, but first we get to know Nick's parents, a humble woodsman and his wife. Early scenes depict "Pa," with exaggerated animation, teaching his coltish son to chop wood.
Meanwhile, even further to the east, a barefoot slave is imprisoned by the wicked witch. The beautiful Nimmee dreams of and eventually manages escape from her captor. The fated young adults meet, but the witch thwarts their union by somehow possessing Nick’s trusted ax.
In a sequence of disturbing scenes, the hatchet turns against its owner. Each time, a gaggle of “Tinkers” fastens artificial limbs onto the wounded boy, until eventually he’s made entirely of metal.
Nimmee is still capable of loving Nick, but can Nick do the same, now that he’s lost his heart? “The Woodsman” leaves us wondering if Nick will ever experience affection, but there’s no doubt he can feel pain. His guttural anguish after being reunited with Nimmee is full of humanity.
The charismatic James Ortiz, who is also writer and co-director (with Claire Karpen), stars as Nick. Will Gallacher and Lauren Nordvig are excellent as his parents. Eliza Martin Simpson, with her expressive eyes, makes for a soulful Nimmee.
Familiar, yet entirely new, this is a fairy tale geared to adults that insists on attention to the intricate traditional Japanese puppetry. A monster—part tiger, part bear—is terrifying; so is the witch, whom these master puppeteers have wooshing over the first rows of the audience.
Like Broadway powerhouse “Wicked,” “The Woodsman” is inspired by the writing of L. Frank Baum, but the similarities stop there. “The Woodsman” will end where “The Wizard of Oz” begins. We have the consolation of knowing there are better days ahead for our rusty friend.
“The Woodsman,” with an open-ended run at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. Tickets: $45-$85. Call 212-239-6200.