I gather than when texts usually begin with the phrase “on the night of Friday the 13th,” it usually precludes to something ominous or horrific. Trust that, for this post, this is certainly not the case. In fact, for me, it was one of the happiest of days.
For on the night of Friday the 13th in the month of May, I went to New World Stages, a theatre on 50th street in NYC, to see Strangemen and Co.’s The Woodsman, a journey to Oz telling the origin story of the Tin Man through the use of puppetry. I will start by saying, that after the show had ended I left the theatre with so much joy, with such an unimaginable love for theatre. The only other time I have felt such overwhelming emotion which might be pinned as happiness was after seeing As You Like It at the National Theatre (which I shall now refer to as AYLI) in London earlier this year. In fact, both productions have similar qualities to them which I will delve into later as I reflect on, as it would seem, a particular style of theatre I am drawn to.
I do recall a frantic desperation to get to the theatre on time for the show. I had taken a nap, likely waking up at around 7:30pm (the shows starts at 8pm), exclaiming “oh, crap” at my realization that I might be late to the show. There was a short debate in my head as I contemplated whether it was still worth it to go, before resolving “What the hell. I paid $37 for the show, I only have less than a week left in this city, and it’s theatre.” I grabbed by keys and headed out the door, leaving my roommate unsurprised that I was out to another show.
I hate being late to the theatre. I think it’s really terribly disrespectful if being late was avoidable. (The worst is when you have to go with a friend who you have to be nice to and even though you’re already barely about to make it he decides to get a doughnut and you can’t yell at him because he made you breakfast that day. True story.) But thankfully the show started late and the space was small so really, any seat was ideal. Anyways, I digress). Even worse, is when you’re navigationally handicapped at trying to find places and maps on your phone cans out on you, just because. For what it’s worth, I was in my seat sharply at 8pm.
As I placed my bag and jacket under my seat, and recomposed myself in my seat from the mad dash to make it on time, I took a deep breath and scanned the stage I had forgotten that I had booked a front row seat near the middle (it’s nice when you surprise yourself with such treats simply because you forget). So the stage was right there, within arm’s reach. And it resembled a quiet forest (oh yeah, ‘The Woodsman’, of course). There were just enough branches used to conjure up the imagination, but even more beautiful were the dainty the bulbs of orange light that were wrapped with little jars. For sake of production design, I made sure to note that not all of them were lit because not all of them needed to be. The set wasn’t over the top, it was just right. Even more surprising, was how it extended off stage and into the side of the audience, the magical forest reaching out along the aisles on the side.
It was perfect. And I was already completely enthralled (following my new found love for set design).
The lights dimmed, and the sounds of the forest were heard.
I’m not going to spoil it, I really will try not to. I will say though, that the show started with a tale, a prologue, narrated by the lead (James Ortiz) who would become our Tin Man. We are also introduced to The Witch, our villain and first puppet on stage. I remember being so taken aback by the quality of the costumes (they were amazing). After the prologue though, the play is completely reliant on non-verbal dialogue (by this I miss ‘words’), making use of body language, music and sounds. All sounds were made by the actual actors on stage, much like how in NT’s AYLI had actors suspended in their forest making the sounds of the birds and the wind. I was completely taken by this, and moved by the moments of melody (and indeed slightly envious of the fact that I personally don’t know how to whistle). What really struck me however, because I personally had never seen it before, was how the actors also controlled the lighting. In a sense that, they were sort of their own lighting crew. Aside from very few stage lights overhead, and the lights behind the set that would flash and become lightning for the scene, the actors would hold flashlights. These were used to emphasize a particular character in a moment, or to convey time of day. They would also use tiny LED lights as fireflies. So there would be a scene with our two main characters, and the other actors around them would gracefully move and blink their lights. I was fascinated by this, and totally captivated. I recall one scene where the theatre was pitch black (I assume the lights behind me had also been turned off as I was in the front row. So what am I to know). The girl (Eliza Martin Simpson) who is the romantic interest of our Huntsman, also the maidservant of The Witch, sat at the edge of the stage shining a flashlight on her face. She looked around, afraid and expectant of the dangers of the forest. And from the corner of her eye, snarled a giant tiger (another puppet, a huge one at that). She screamed, the theatre became pitch black again. It was an extremely cinematic moment, one that I treasure because a) huzzah for being in the front row and b) of my interest in the intersection of film and theatre.
Now, the play was the advertised as a puppet show. I will admit that I arrived being totally prepared to be completely skeptical. I was skeptical simply because I had seen the Czech-American Marionette Theatre’s show, The New World Symphony: Dvořák in America, where they used puppets. I had also been taking a workshop with Phantom Limb Company on how to make a marionette, and so I was interested to see the kinds of puppets Strangemen and Co. would use. Although The Woodsman is hyped as being a puppet show, I wouldn’t call it that. In a sense that, if I were to write a cast list, then the puppets would seem secondary. My only reasoning for this is simply because ,me having very little experience with puppetry as an art and theatre form, I define a “puppet show” quantitatively to mean that most of the show involves puppets being alive on stage. Neither would I say that the production used puppets. Rather, puppets were a part of the human world. They existed to further emphasize the magical realm of Oz. The puppets were otherworldly, they were other beings and I feel a subtle cringe to call them puppets because it objectifies them. Yes, they are objects, but on the stage they weren’t – they breathed life.
They weren’t super extravagant. They were simple, but well made. Part of this sense of life having breathe into the is not only how they were effectively incorporated into the show, but the form in which they were. The puppets were controlled by the actors – who, I should’ve mentioned earlier, are always present on stage and take on many roles – in a way that made them synonymous to each other. What I mean by this is that, the actors weren’t simply controlling the puppet, but they were embodying the puppet’s character, and that’s something I had never seen before. A prime example to take would be The Witch. What initially intrigued me was the decision to have two actresses control The Witch. Such a character could be designed in a way whereby it is only maneuvered by one actor, but it wasn’t. Here, having two actresses elevated the character particularly by the use of their voices. The actresses would hiss and gasp and exclaim as one, creating the eerie sense of The Witch’s voiced being comprised of multiple voices. Super creepy, and so well executed. The actresses were constantly animated – again, they weren’t controlling The Witch, they were The Witch.
The same goes for the Tin Man. As he loses his real limbs and is fitted with his suit of tin, the Huntsman eventually leaves his body. At first, Ortiz moves along with two other actors who help control his limbs. Eventually, Ortiz becomes a ghostly figure on stage, not playing the Huntsman or the Tin Man, but embodying his spirited. As a group of actors now maneuver the Tin Man, it could easily have been the case that it simply looks messy on stage. On the contrary, because of the camaraderie between actors and the fact that they embody the characters of the puppets, I believed I was seeing the Tin Man and not a group of actors play him. Eventually, because he is completely made out of Tin and ashamed of what he has become, he leaves the love of his life. A controller/crutch appears from the ceiling, and the actors string the Tin Man until he in held in place. And there he stands, alone on stage, the first time a puppet is completely without a living body behind it. Completely without spirit.
When I talk to peers about this show and they ask me whether it was a funny show or a sad one, I reply saying that it’s tragic. It pulls your heart out, but it’s still super funny. They in turn, as expected, give me a really confused look. It is a tragic story, but humour is embedded in it (so at least you don’t feel like your heart has been torn to pieces by the end of it). And if I may add, my favourite character is the caterpillar-like doctor, played in fact by three actors (so characters? Or team?).
The Woodsman was ever so masterfully executed. It is clear that every decision made was thought of carefully and thought of in a way that would make sense to the whole production and not just a particular moment.
With the biggest smile on my face for the love of theatre, I called a friend (indeed the same one that stopped for a doughnut) because I just had to have a conversation about everything I had just seen. He too had just seen a show that he loved. So there I was aimlessly walking around Times Square talking at a million miles an hour on my phone about the magic I had just witnessed, occasionally stopping in my tracks or even jumping with glee.
He urged me to immediately write down everything I was feeling. And so I wrote, a thick paragraph with no interest whatsoever in being grammatically correct, my intention being to record how excited I was and what in particular about the show excited me. So below, for my own sake really, I will write down a more coherent form of what kind of aesthetics I discovered that I personally like.
- As it turns out, I’m interested in folklore. I do have a faint recollection as a child of being interested in melodies which I can only now describe as being Irish-tunes. I didn’t realize that ‘folklore’ was the word I was looking for. I previously connoted it with folk tales, which where I come from are old tales involving the personification of animals. I hadn’t really realize that folk tales were really stories that had been passed on and that folklore, as I have recently found out, means “the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth” (thanks, Google). I have AYLI in mind when thinking about this, especially the final scene with the communal dance in the forest. Key words to remember: mysticism and magic.
- Actors as stagehands. In The Woodsman, the actors we meet the entire cast in the prologue and they are all always on stage, save for a few moments. For the most part, they control the lighting and the sound (like having flashlights and whistling).
- You don’t really have to have wind, you can represent it. And I mean this for all other things and not just the wind as well. Being a film major, one of the things that I’m concerned about is making things seem ‘real’. In theatre though we can employ Brechtian techniques whereby a spectator is always aware that the performance is a representation of reality, and not reality itself (all hail Brecht). I wonder what happens if Brechtian techniques are applied to film?
- Something about the show was cinematic. I’m still thinking about this one, being someone who is interested in the intersection of film and theatre. I can pick out certain moments, like the moment when the theatre was pitch black and the tiger jumps out.
- You don’t need words to convey feeling. The Woodsman is super clever about the moments they choose to have the characters say something and moments where there are lyrics to the music.
- Live music on stage and keeping it simple. I just realized that most of the time, if not all, there was a violinist on stage. And only a violinist. So beautiful, so powerful, and just the right instrument for the mood of the play.
- No set genre. Does a show really need to have a set genre? It is what it is. To me, this was part physical theatre and part musical theatre. The physicality of the body and the power of the voice are two things that really intrigued me about this play.
After this long post, I really have only one thing to say: I loved it so, so much. Seeing The Woodsman in my final week in NYC was a perfect reminder as to why I am studying theatre, and a realization for certain aesthetics I am drawn to.
I would just like to thank Strangemen and Co., for taking me on a journey to Oz that spanned years, and for making me believe in magic.