NEW YORK (AP) — It's been an exciting season for theater in New York, with some solid revivals, thoughtful new plays and lively comedies. And then there's the show where a guy's ax gets stuck in an invisible tree.
That's a moment in the lovely show "The Woodsman," which combines sparse dialogue, haunting music and captivating puppets. It's a passion project from an artist who wrote and also stars in it — and this season he's not alone.
Idiosyncratic works from actor-playwrights also include a hit hip-hop flavored show about Alexander Hamilton, a madcap adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility" and a Broadway musical that features an actor with a pair of fluffy toy sharks on his arms.
That last one is from the singular mind of Seth Rudetsky, who with Jack Plotnick, wrote the musical "Disaster!" a spoof of 1970s disaster movies that closes this weekend. It's a gleefully cheesy comedy with nun jokes and the cast tap-dancing emergency instructions in Morse code. Rudetsky plays a "noted disaster expert."
"It's very much my sense of humor and my musical taste. I've always come from the place of 'What do I find entertaining?'" Rudetsky said. "I feel confident putting it out there because I'm thinking, 'I would love this' instead of 'Hey, what would people like?'"
James Ortiz, who created "The Woodsman," also followed his heart. He fell in love with puppetry growing up in Texas and read all of "Wizard of Oz" creator L. Frank Baum's 14 books in college. Combining those two loves made sense in a show that he created, designed sets, made the puppets and co-directed with Claire Karpen. ("There is a lot of me all over that stage," he acknowledged.)
What emerged is the origin story of the Tin Man told with puppets, live music and few words. It's quirky and sublime, with performers onstage manipulating life-size witches and a Tin Man puppet while creating the sound of rain with their fingernails and squawking like birds. It ends its run at New World Stages on May 29.
"I wanted to see if a puppet could be as dynamic and as layered as an actor could be. Could there be whole scenes between puppets and actors? And could that not feel like a trick or a gimmick?" said Ortiz. "I was curious to see if that could work. So this was an opportunity to play with all of those questions."
For Kate Hamill, creating something for the stage was born from frustration at too few meaty female parts. She had written short plays before but was interested in doing something full-length.
"I thought, 'Well, wouldn't it be interesting if I could create a new classic? For myself to play a role but also for other women to play these interesting roles?'"
During a car ride with Andrus Nichols, the producing director and co-founder of Bedlam theater company, the two bonded over their love of Jane Austen, and Hamill suggested they'd be great starring as the main sisters in "Sense and Sensibility."
Nichols challenged her to write an adaptation. So Hamill wrote a check to her friend and postdated it. "I bet her $100 I could do it and I really didn't want to lose the $100," she said.
The version they came up with, under the innovative directing of Eric Tucker, is a delightful whirlwind with a 10-member cast, furniture zooming across the stage on coasters, actors turning into horses and waving tree branches as if they were forests.
While staying completely faithful to the speech and soul of the novel, Hamill's script explores how people respond to social pressures — do they break the rules or follow them? — so she created a sort of Greek chorus of gossips to apply the pressure.
"When I was approaching this book, I thought, 'Well, why do an adaptation as opposed to a new play?'" she said. "For me, the answer to that is why do an adaptation unless you have a point of view?"
The show is currently playing downtown in New York and productions will open this fall at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.
Hamill is particularly proud that her work — initially written so she didn't have to act as just someone's girlfriend — created substantial work for dozens of other women.
And she didn't lose any money. Remember that $100 promise she made to Nichols? "She didn't get to cash the check," Hamill said, laughing.
Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits