Meet and Lose Your Heart to James Ortiz

Meet and Lose Your Heart to James Ortiz

James Ortiz’s Tin Man puppet, which he made and manipulates during “The Woodsman.” (Emma Mead, 2016)

If you’ve ever wondered how the Tin Man in the Oz stories came to lose his heart, Off-Broadway’s “The Woodsman” has the answer.

The first novel read to James Ortiz as a boy was Frank L. Baum’s “The Wonderful World of Oz.” To say that it made an impression on the youngster is an understatement. The adult Ortiz has parlayed the experience into “The Woodsman,” the Off-Broadway piece in which he not only appears onstage as the Tin Man/Nick Chopper, but also serves as its writer, director, and set, costume and puppet designer. If proof were needed that the child is father to the man, this is it. The show opened Feb. 8 at New World Stages to rave reviews, with critics calling it “evocative and haunting” (Time Out New York), “vividly rendered” (Hollywood Reporter) and “an achingly beautiful play” (NBC New York).

“The story is about a guy [Nick Chopper] who loses his humanity for all the right reasons,” Ortiz contends. “He’s a man so in love with a girl that he does everything wrong to himself in order to keep her.” And if that means suffering the wrath of a witch’s curse and losing heart and limbs (by his own ax!), so be it. “I think we’ve all been there,” he concludes. And he’s probably right. In writing the backstory of a basically unfamiliar character, he has found the universal quality that makes him so identifiable to adults especially.

To convey this “aggressively American story,” in which characters find the place where they belong without the aid of a fairy godmother, Ortiz has resorted to puppetry. “There’s no way to present this kind of physical transformation without a puppet that that is larger than life,” he explains.

“I built him of lightweight metals and tubes because weight has to be a consideration when handling a puppet. It needs to be manageable. It needs to be pliable.”

Which isn’t to say, the Woodsman/Tin Man is light as a feather.

“He isn’t the lightest in spite of my best efforts,’ says Ortiz, who has yet to put his creation on a scale. “I want to say he’s probably 30-40 pounds that are distributed in a bizarre way. He has heavy feet. And it’s not like he’s a single lift. There are three people operating it,” including Ortiz.

How to give voice to the Tin Man was another choice that Ortiz had to make.

“Whenever we tried to give the Tin Man dialogue, it killed the power of the puppet and killed the universality of the material,” he says. “By giving him a specific voice, it was no longer the voice heard inside an audience member.”

Consequently, “The Woodsman” evolved over time into a movement piece, with the absolute minimum of dialogue and spoken word.

While Ortiz’s training is in acting, his forte is puppetry and how, he says, “puppetry can be used to explode the proscenium.” He envisions puppetry not as a theatrical trick, but as a means to define character and tell a story in a nondecorative way.

Still, as lofty as his ambitions may be, there are practical matters to consider as well. Maintaining a puppet like the Tin Man is ”like buying a house,” Ortiz says. “There’s always something to do.” Like oiling the joints between shows.

“The Woodsman,” New World Stages, Stage 5, 340 W. 50th St., btw Eighth & Ninth aves., 212.239.6200, www.thewoodsmanplay.com

(Left to right) Will Gallacher (Tin Man puppeteer), James Ortiz (the Tin Man/Nick Chopper) and Eliza Martin Simpson as Nimmee, the object of the Tin Man’s affection. (Matthew Murphy, 2016)