Friday, July 21, 2017

Guest Review (Theater): ‘The Woodsman’

Note from The Fairy Tale News Room: This review has been a long time in coming (all due to a kaffufle in our fairy tale newsroom, for which we apologize). HUGE thanks to razorfriend for this intriguing overview and insight into a play we've been ultra-curious about for some time.
We're including a trailer to give you a quick overview before we get into the wonderfully detailed article below:
'The Woodsman' (Broadway HD)
Review by razorfriend

‘The Woodsman’ played a few runs in New York City in recent years before ultimately closing in May 2016. Online streaming service BroadwayHD is now offering a video recording of the play as part of its catalogue; this review is of the recorded performance.

(Warning: This review is rather spoiler-heavy, as I’m assuming many readers of this review will already be familiar with the story told.)

Anyone who’s read ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ will be familiar with the tragic backstory of the Tin Woodman character: human woodcutter Nick Chopper falls in love with the beautiful Nimmee, slave of the Wicked Witch of the East. In order to destroy Nimmee’s chance for a different life, the Witch curses Nick’s axe so that it repeatedly turns against him as he chops wood, progressively amputating various parts of his body. Nick gets replacement body parts made of tin and carries on, but as time goes by he gradually gets Robocopped to such an extent that eventually every part of him has been replaced by tin. He thereby loses his heart, and with it loses the last vestiges of his humanity… or does he? (This story is primarily covered in the first ‘Oz’ book, but ‘Oz’ series fans will notice that the show has incorporated a retcon that Baum added to the story later on.)

‘The Woodsman’ play uses largely low-tech theatrical techniques, such as puppetry and live sound effects, to tell and expand this tale. The talented young cast, crew and musician (violinist Naomi Florin) work seamlessly together in animating multi-operator puppets, generating other visual effects with props, and creating an ongoing soundscape through music, clapping, whistling, vocalising and singing. Particularly impressive is the ‘Tin Man’ puppet itself, which requires close coordination between the actor playing the human Nick (James Ortiz) and the puppeteers helping to operate his gradually accumulating tin parts, so that actor and puppet parts appear to be part of a single being. It’s chilling to watch Nick become increasingly more encumbered by artificial prosthetics, and gradually surrounded by puppeteer ‘handlers’ required to help animate him like one of the lifeless puppets seen elsewhere in the show. The other puppets are also a joy to watch; it’s fascinating to see the theatrical magic of an immobile puppet face seemingly take on a new expression due to the tilting of the puppet’s head or the accompanying sound effects.

The show includes a short spoken prologue which I don’t believe, given my middling knowledge of the Oz mythos, was taken from Baum. It describes the oppressiveness of the Wicked Witch of the East’s rule, and how her pervasive magically-enhanced spying techniques made the people so afraid of being caught speaking perceived or actual dissent that “words became dangerous”. Therefore, from the prologue onwards, the story is conveyed with very minimal spoken dialogue. Although the idea of an oppressive ruler literally causing the elimination of speech is interesting, and perhaps worthy of a fairy tale or two in its own right (does anybody know of such a tale that already exists?), thankfully ‘The Woodsman’ doesn’t try to shoehorn in too much heavy-handed political commentary. The absence of speech is instead largely a source of creativity and humour as the characters find ways to communicate through vocalisations, gestures and (mostly) wordless singing. (The use of humour in the show is a relief in general; much as I love this tragic tale, the telling of it could easily have become maudlin.) The show is particularly good at convincing us of the budding romance between Nick and Nimmee (Eliza Martin Simpson), despite their initial awkwardness with one another being exacerbated by the absence of speech. The capable way in which the characters dealt with being voiceless was heartening to see, but also tied in well with Nick’s later obstinate stoicism as he was gradually robbed of other capabilities. Additionally, the minimal dialogue would, I imagine, make this show easy to understand for non-English speakers. It’s also interesting to imagine that this telling of the Wicked Witch of the East’s rule is continuous with the classic ‘Wizard of Oz’ movie; if so, then the words spoken by Glinda and the Munchkins to Dorothy near the start of that film are virtually the first words spoken in the land for years and years. No wonder they all start singing.

In addition to the speechlessness conceit, this adaptation also adds an interesting, canon-compatible character arc for Nimmee over the course of the show, when she might have been little more than a narrative pretext for our male protagonist’s tragic transformation. There are also another nice one or two thematic ideas and payoffs that I won’t spoil here.

(That said, be warned: detailed ending spoilers in this paragraph!) Funnily enough, my two main criticisms of the show relate to aspects which I wish had been less faithful to Baum. There are a few directions in which the show could have gone in relation to Nick’s final tragic loss of his torso, and with it his heart. The loss of his heart could have worked an actual transformation on his character; perhaps he could have become genuinely cruel or indifferent to Nimmee as a result of it. Or, his transformation could have been self-inflicted; he could mistakenly believe that after being completely transformed into tin, he was no longer capable of real human emotions, and so would leave Nimmee because he believed he could no longer ‘truly’ love her, not because he didn’t still feel love for her. Or perhaps the show could have played up the ambiguity of just how much of the man was left. The show goes with the second option, clearly showing that Nick still feels strong emotions after his transformation is complete. That take on the story is valid; but I felt that there could have been more build-up to Nick’s self-perception of his loss of humanity. One way of achieving this would have been for Nick to show some more disgust at his mutilated body and prosthetic tin limbs while he was still in the process of transforming, to help convince the audience that he would later believe that being made entirely of tin made him a monster. The vibe I got from his experience of being part-tin was more one of initial physical pain and struggle to use the new parts, as well as some pleasure and relief when he was able to get them working properly. His devastation when he became completely tin therefore seemed a bit abrupt. Yes, it’s only the loss of his heart specifically which really causes Nick problems in Baum’s book, and the show does do its best to establish the importance of hearts throughout, without the benefit of many spoken words with which to do so; but I still would have liked a little more clarity around this crucial plot point.
I also didn’t like that Nick seemed to have a sense of foreboding each time the axe’s curse got activated and it got ready to mutilate. Again, Baum did set the precedent here by implying that Nick becomes aware of the Witch’s scheme, and just doesn’t realise that she’ll take it as far as she does. But I would rather that the play had made a judicious revision regarding this point. Watching it play out, I couldn’t help but think, “If you have the slightest inkling that your axe might be possessed by an evil spirit, switch axes, dude!”
But criticisms aside, for the most part I thought this adaptation had a lot of heart (sorry), combined with technical virtuosity and creativity. It was very satisfying to see my favourite part of the Oz mythos get a theatrical adaptation from talented people who clearly love the material themselves.
Note about accessing the show online:
BroadwayHD is a bit like mini-Netflix for theatre lovers; it offers yearly and monthly subscriptions for access to its collection of streaming recorded plays, musicals and related content. It also offers one-off ‘tickets’ to stream individual shows for a limited period of time. Some of its content (including ‘The Woodsman’) is exclusive to BroadwayHD, and some not. Some shows and purchase options are not available in certain parts of the world; I imagine that all BroadwayHD options are available to users within the United States. Being located outside of the United States myself, I’m not able to purchase a blanket subscription for the entire catalogue, but was able to buy access to stream ‘The Woodsman’ specifically for two days for USD $7.99. I found the stream to be of reasonable quality, but did have to adjust my browser plugin settings to get it to work. If you’re interested in trying the service, I would recommend first looking at advice online (and not just on BroadwayHD’s website) regarding whether your device and settings will work, and also giving yourself a little time between your purchase and your ‘screening’ to troubleshoot any issues.

Online access
Show website:
Link to watch the show on BroadwayHD:
Show score recording on Spotify:
Show length: Approximately 75 minutes
Main credits
Originally produced and developed by Strangemen & Co Theatre Company
Creator and co-director (among other roles): James Ortiz
Co-director: Claire Karpen
Composer: Edward W Hardy
Lyricist: Jen Loring
Many thanks to razorfriend for an inspiring and thought-provoking review! 

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