The Woodsman is a warm and welcoming little hour of mime, mostly wordless music and simplified Bunraku puppetry.
Nick Chopper (James Ortiz), woodsman in name and trade, is hacking away one day when he encounters Nimmee (Eliza Simpson), slave girl to the Wicked Witch of the East. The attraction between them is immediate. Their courtship is a brisk, slapstick affair that concludes with Nick literally giving her his heart. Armed only with love, Nimmee manages to escapes her captor’s clutches and flees to start a life with Nick. But the Witch ruins their attempt at happy cohabitation, cursing Nick’s axe so that each swing causes it to hack off one of his limbs. Each lost appendage cues a winning entourage of tinkering munchkins who steadily replace each of Nick’s absent limbs with metal, slowly transforming him into the Tin Man of Wizard of Oz fame.
Directors James Ortiz and Claire Karpen have adopted a highly calculated homemade atmosphere for The Woodsman. Scenes are shifted by rearranging a simple array of boxes, boards, and branches. Actors scramble about waving flashlights, hissing and moaning for atmospheric effect. The Witch, in an inspired turn, often appears as a scrap of fabric, whipped above a shrieking actor’s head as she flies from one destination to the next. None of this feels cheap or haphazard. When the kalidah, a fearsome hybrid creature, makes its appearance, it is as a highly segmented beast, the actors manipulating its various pieces clearly visible. They want you to see the strings and seams, an aesthetic decision that is mostly pleasant and occasionally impressive. When Chopper becomes more puppet than actor, Mr. Ortiz neither disappears nor becomes the puppeteer. He remains on stage, standing back and watching the automaton his character has become. It’s a moment of melancholy beauty in a production that mostly relies on breezy charm.
Though this fashionable, rustic spirit may align it with the kind of questionable whimsy found in projects that feature mandolin soundtracks, hand-stenciled poster lettering and Miranda July, The Woodsman manages to avoid being obnoxious and cloying. It succeeds because it has what those projects and its own protagonist lacks. It has heart.