James Ortiz’s play The Woodsman stars an ensemble cast of actors who, over the course of an hour or so, tell the story of a young man who falls in love with a girl, runs afoul of a witch, and loses his head and his heart — both figuratively and literally — because of a naïve belief in the power of love to conquer all. By the end of the play, the titular Woodsman (played by Ortiz, who also wrote and co-directed) has become a six-and-a-half-foot puppet, frozen in the forest with his trusty ax. We know what’s in store for him after the curtain falls: A girl from Kansas in a blue gingham dress will oil him back to something resembling life.
“I knew the major conceit of the play was that an actor would turn into the puppet,” Ortiz tells the Voice. “He would get transformed bit by bit and then would need to rust at the end.” Although the Tin Man puppet is not the only one in The Woodsman, it’s the most essential. Stylistically, it has to suggest both humanity and a loss of it; functionally, it has to be modular, so it can integrate slowly into the actor’s body. That’s a lot to ask from a jumble of wood and plastic, but Ortiz, who nabbed an Obie for the play’s puppet design, had talented actors (from the theater company Strangemen & Co., where he is co–artistic director) — and, just as thankfully, a masterful source text.
We’re used to seeing the Tin Man as Jack Haley played him in the classic 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz: a guy in a boxy suit clanking jauntily alongside Dorothy. But this isn’t how L. Frank Baum originally envisioned the character. “The books suggest that the only thing holding him together is his own willpower — you can see daylight through the joints,” says Ortiz. “And there would also have been some naïveté in the bizarre creatures that built him.” (In the books, the Tin Man is the creation of the tinsmith Ku-Klip; Ortiz entrusts the task to several scurrying actors wearing steampunk gear.)
To remedy his own naïveté about how such a ramshackle contraption would be fitted together, Ortiz turned to YouTube videos on metallurgy and riveting. “Not to do metallurgy myself,” he clarifies, “but I needed to learn which shapes made sense.” Those shapes ended up including coffee cans used as shoulder joints, the pillars of bowling trophies for forearms, and a plastic water jug to form the torso. “[I used found objects because] the Tin Man is a fragmented person, and he needed to look that way,” says Ortiz. “If I designed every corner of him, it might have been too sleek. It was about taking things that already had character and then forcing them into this sculpture.”
The puppets have survived three different productions — and some tinkering. Because early performances were done on a less-than-shoestring budget, Ortiz had to use the cheapest materials he could find, which were also heavy and prone to malfunction. Before this latest production at New World Stages, Ortiz and his puppet coordinator, Jessica Scott, rebuilt the innards of all the major figures, from the Wicked Witch of the East to the Khalida, an eight-foot monster. (For the latter, they replaced cushion foam with L200, essentially a thicker version of the dense but lightweight foam used in mousepads.) The interior of the Tin Man’s chest, previously stuffed with excessive doweling for stability, was stripped down to a single robust handle for the actor supporting the puppet’s torso. Still, this isn’t Hollywood: Despite the slimmer innards, a peer inside the drum reveals duct tape and hot glue alongside all the sleek riveting.
From the outside it still looks like the slight mess Ortiz first devised. Even when the puppet is hanging still, its hodgepodge construction suggests awkward motion; it’s impossible to imagine that this creature could do anything but shamble. As Ortiz’s character loses his human limbs over the course of the play, he lurches across the stage, seemingly struggling to control the parts of the puppet that have replaced his own. Once the man disappears entirely and all that’s left is tin, the actors pulling the puppet’s strings perform slow, hesitant movements; he’s settled into his new body and found it creaky and dispiriting. The life is gone.
As Ortiz sees it, a puppet is the only way to communicate the particular tragedy of the play. “This is a story about a guy who, through a series of unfortunate events and his own stubbornness, loses his humanity,” he says. “You can’t really tell that story by painting someone silver.” Better instead to paint a water jug and entrust it to capable hands.
[This is part of the Voice‘s 2016 Obie Awards coverage. Check out the rest of our Obies features here.]