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The Tin Man Doesn’t Need Words

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James Ortiz (center) and cast

In The Woodsman, puppets create a hero from Oz

There are maybe (maybe) 1000 words in The Woodsman, Strangemen & Co.’s new show about the Tin Man of Oz, now at 59E59. But as the company uses puppetry, physical performance, and live music to trace the origin of Dorothy’s metal friend, words hardly seem necessary.

In fact, the absence of text allows the company to dig for something deeper in the tale.

Those who only know the film version of The Wizard of Oz may not know where the Tin Man came from. Here’s his story in The Woodsman, which adapts L. Frank Baum’s original novel: He began as a young man in love with the daughter of a powerful sorcerer. The daughter, however, was the slave of the Wicked Witch of the East, and to punish the Woodsman for his affection toward her minion, the Witch enchanted his ax so that it would chop off his limbs. However, a band of “tinkerers” replaced each part with tin, transforming him into the Tin Man we know so well.

The Woodsman tells this story by blending puppets with live actors. The Witch, for instance, is a puppet operated by two cast members, flapping ominously through the room as she menaces the Woodsman, played by James Ortiz. Their encounters feel even more primal because the performers mostly communicate with their breath. Sharp gasps and heavy sighs create an emotional score, joining with live violin music to tell us exactly what the puppets and the people are feeling in every scene.

The company knows this is the best approach. “In early drafts, there was a lot of talking in the show, and it just wasn’t working,” says Ortiz, who not only stars in The Woodsman, but also wrote, co-directed, and designed the set and puppets. “We started taking a lot of the language out, and by that point, the whole cast had been trained as puppeteers. It became this natural thing to let the breath be so present.”

Granted, there are practical reasons to keep the show mostly wordless. For one thing, when multiple puppeteers are operating one large puppet, they often use their breath to “speak” to each other, so that a particular inhalation might say “now it’s time to walk.” For another, Ortiz doesn’t make puppets with movable mouths, and he doesn’t love the idea of a puppet talking when its face is immobile.

But the lack of language also invites each audience member to make a unique connection to the show. “Somehow, it takes away the puppet’s power when you have one voice saying its thoughts,” says Ortiz. “By giving him one voice, it takes away the audience’s voice for him. When the face is static and there are no words, we can all perceive the puppet’s feelings in our own way.”

The performers also trust us to stay engaged, even though we can see exactly how the show is being made. There’s no attempt to hide the puppeteers or the violinist, for instance, and when the Woodsman transforms into the Tin Man, we see the performers assemble the new puppet.

“We don’t hide any of the tricks in the show, and in a funny way, I feel like that’s tied in with what L. Frank Baum wrote,” says Ortiz. “The style in which he writes is completely earnest and un-poetic. There’s no trickery. There’s no embellishment. And it felt like that was the best way to do a spatial adaptation of his work, to let the simplicity and the frontier-spirit earnestness be part of it.”

Ortiz adds that Baum’s books tend to be darker and more realistic (relatively speaking) than the Technicolor fantasy in the film, and he wants The Woodsman‘s unadorned style, with its human breath and human effort so obviously on display, to reflect that. “Baum was always saying that Oz is not a dream, that Oz is a real place,” he says. “He was always trying to let the place be as authentic as possible. We’re hopefully honoring the thing that was his initial thought.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

Photo by Hunter Canning

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