If He Only Had a Heart, This Would Be His Play

Pictured: Amanda Lederer (l) and Eliza Martin Simpson (r). Photo by Hunter Canning.

Tom Stoppard, eat your heart out. Yes, he got there first with his absurd and tragicomic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, taking two minor Hamlet characters, placing them front and center, and walking off with a Tony Award for Best Play. Yes, his idea of taking the backstory of minor characters and making it the focus of a play was genius. But Stoppard has long had to know what a tough act that is to follow. No one’s going to build a play around, say, the Nurse and Doctor at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, or a musical about what happens next to Enoch Snow after Carousel is over. If you’re a theater maker and want to ride the Boulevard du Stoppard, have at it — but have the right vehicle.

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Based on the beloved writings of L. Frank Baum, The Woodsman would seem to be just that vehicle. It tells of the origins of the Tin Woodman — the character we more familiarly call the Tin Man — in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, including the woman he loved and the witch who’d stop at nothing to keep them apart. For those of us who best know the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz (or even the 1974 Broadway musical, The Wiz), the conceit is terrific. Just who is the Tin Man?

If I only had a puppet.
If I only had a puppet. Photo by Emma Mead.

It’s not lost on this observer that the “company-devised” approach of Strangemen & Co. employs puppetry to tell this tale. The troupe was founded in 2010 by graduates of the SUNY Purchase Acting Conservatory for Theatre Arts and Film, which is becoming increasingly well-known for streaks of adventurousness in its alums. There are three co-artistic directors: Jason Ralph, Frank Winters, James Ortiz.

And it is Ortiz who, together with Claire Karpen, directs the piece, for which Ortiz supplies script, set and puppet design, and one of the performances. The rest of the cast includes Benjamin Bass, Devin Dunne Cannon, Will Gallacher, Alex J. Gould, Amanda A. Lederer, Aaron McDaniel, Lauren Nordvig, Eliza Simpson, Meghan St. Thomas and Sophia Zukoski. Molly Seidel provides the costume design (Carol Uraneck did the original costume design), while lighting is by Catherine Clark and Jamie Roderick; Edward W. Hardy’s music features lyrics by Jen Loring; and Robb Nanus, Rachel Sussman, Ryan Bogner and Adam Silberman are the producers for this run.

Before landing Off-Broadway at New World Stages (340 W. 50th St. 212-239-6200), where the 70-minute show opens Feb. 8, The Woodsman originally premiered at Brooklyn’s Standard ToyKraft in 2012 and had a run at the Ars Nova ANT Fest in 2013 before moving to 59E59 Theaters in January 2014 and returning to 59E59 Theaters last year. So, in other words, this is the fifth production of this piece in five years — it should tell you something about what these imagination-rich folks are up to.

The Clyde Fitch Report is pleased to offer the following discounts on tickets:

  • $39 for Mezzanine seats, all performances (regularly $45)
  • $49 for Orchestra seats, Monday through Thursday (regularly $85)
  • $59 Orchestra seats, Friday through Sunday (regularly $85)

To take advantage, click here or visit TelechargeOffers.com and use code: WMLSP3949. Or call 212-947-8844 and mention the same code: WMLSP3949. Or print this post and bring it to the New World Stages box office (and again, use the same code).

And now, 5 questions James Ortiz has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
It’s hard to say. Awhile back someone asked me if The Woodsman was underscored with the actors’ breath — if the breaths were choreographed. It’s a moment like that — where someone thinks you’re much smarter than you actually are — that it hurts to tell them that you had never thought of it that way. I really burst his bubble!

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
It wasn’t so much a question, but more of a comment. A few years ago, a reviewer who saw The Woodsman spoke very kindly and positively about it, but then ended it with “…but a note for Mr. Ortiz: The shoes are red.” Sigh. Yup. Must have missed that one.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Several years ago, I was in another puppet piece, and after the performance one patron wanted to know all about my shoes. They were simple brown dress shoes, and he didn’t say anything about the play, and he really didn’t want to…he just had to know the details of the kicks worn by my character. Guess he didn’t like the show?

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]…surprisingly complex and resonant — and easily identifiable.[/pullquote]In The Woodsman, how did you come to focus on the backstory of the Tin Man, not the Scarecrow or Cowardly Lion? Can you imagine pieces about them, too? Why or why not?
I think I can say with confidence that The Woodsman is a faithful adaptation of Baum’s writing, and naturally some things were removed for time and clarity. There isn’t a plot point or narrative detail that’s found its way onstage that isn’t in some way expanded from either The Wonderful Wizard… or from The Tin Woodman of Oz. So, I chose to focus on the Tin Woodsman’s story because Baum focuses on his story so much in all of his novels. The Tin Man is present in the entire series, but he particularly haunts the entire first novel. Most of the chapters of Wonderful Wizard end with some beat that reminds us of his pain or his sensitivity and by so doing, I think it actually roots the novel in a reality that I don’t think would be present without that character. His story is just surprisingly complex and resonant — and easily identifiable.

The Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion’s origins are less involved and more of a given circumstance than a real narrative. So in adapting their stories, we’d be entering into the world of content invention in order to make something more than a 10-minute play. But: the flying monkeys…they have a terrific origin story. More on that later.

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Strangemen and Co. specializes in “company-devised work.” That in itself isn’t a new idea, but the ways companies devise such work varies widely. With three co-artistic directors, can you explain your creative process? What comes first, the story or the idea for executing it?
A bit of both, I think. The story was the thing that excited me as well as my desire to depict the world of Oz as Baum depicts it in his books: a piece of forgotten, early American folklore that mirrored a great many things in his own, sometimes troubled life. From that filter, I am telling a story about a man losing his humanity and (so he thinks) his capacity for love. What better way to tell that story than to watch an actor slowly get replaced by a puppet? We knew the ending and we knew other moments that needed to happen, so from there, the ensemble worked together on fleshing out the spaces between those events.

Bonus question:

Puppets = awesome! Name three ideas for the wildest, craziest, most improbable puppet characters you could imagine if you could have unlimited time and budget.
I love making hideous, scary monsters but there’s not much of a desire for mutant creatures in theater. So, I’d say my choices are:

  1. The Alien Queen in Aliens: The Arena Show.
  2. The kraken, the hydra or Medusa in Clash of the Titans: The Musical.
  3. An enormous, scary, fire breathing dragon in…whatever. I don’t care. I just want to make a dragon so badly! For a hile, I wanted the witch of the east in The Woodsman to have a miniature dragon as a pet. Then I realized that a pet dragon truly had nothing to do with the story and more to do with my insatiable need for dragons. One day…