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How Obie winner James Ortiz is helping to bring Disney's animated movie to the stage
When The Public Theater hired James Ortiz to design puppets for its Public Works' adaptation of Hercules, the first thing he did was rewatch the source material. It had been years since he'd seen Disney's 1997 animated movie, and he wanted to get a sense of which characters he might be asked to create. "I thought, I bet they're going to have me do that amazing Pegasus," he recalls. "But when I came in with ideas they said, 'We cut that.'" It wasn't due to budget or technical constraints; it was because it didn't serve the story. "Our Hercules is about a community that holds up its hero, it's about how our humanity is what brings us together," Ortiz explains. "Giving the hero this magical best friend who solves all his problems, that won't work. We had a narrative discussion about a spectacle, which doesn't often happen."
Audiences familiar with Disney and Public Works shows may think it's an unlikely artistic marriage. The former is responsible for Broadway blockbusters such as Frozen, Aladdin and The Lion King, while the latter puts on participatory outdoor pageants based on classics featuring professional actors alongside hundreds of everyday New Yorkers. Yet while Hercules is being presented by special arrangement with Disney Theatrical Productions, from Ortiz's perspective, "it feels like a Public Works show. Yes, there have been new people in the room, but they're asking all the right questions. They want to make sure the show is relevant and matters."
Like previous Public Works productions, Hercules, which Ortiz calls "a jazz riff on the fables," will have a brief run at Central Park's Delacorte Theater: just seven FREE performances starting August 31, though you need to win the advance digital lottery in order to snag tickets. While the official word is that Disney is not planning any additional productions, it certainly seems like a tryout for future things. Director Lear deBessonet has assembled an impressive team: The movie's original songwriters, Alan Menken and David Zippel, have added new tunes. Book writer Kristoffer Diaz has overhauled the script. And the cast includes stage stars Roger Bart (the singing voice of Hercules in the movie) as Hades, James Monroe Iglehart (who won a Tony as the Genie in Aladdin) as Philoctetes, Krysta Rodriguez as Megara and Jelani Alladin (the original Kristoff in Frozen) as the title demigod, supported by 117 community members from Public Works' partners such as Children's Aid and Domestic Workers United.
But Ortiz isn't thinking about what might happen next. He's focused on the Public Works run, crafting awesome mythical creatures like the Cyclops and the Hydra in his signature puppet style, which he describes as "Bread and Puppet Theater meets Americanized Bunraku meets kinetic sculpture."
Ortiz has been into puppets for most of his life. Growing up in Richardson, Texas, he was introduced to the art form by the local touring marionette troupe. In high school, making puppets "became this identifying feature of me," he says. His last show in Texas before leaving to study acting at SUNY Purchase's prestigious Conservatory of Theatre Arts was The Rocky Horror (Puppet) Show. "I made these 11-foot tall-legs that did 'The Time Warp,'" he recalls.
After graduating from SUNY in 2010, the first gig he got was as a puppeteer for Blind Summit's El gato con botas (Puss in Boots) at the New Victory Theater. That same year he and some classmates co-founded Strangemen Theatre Company, and they soon scored an Off-Broadway hit with The Woodsman, an almost wordless adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel The Tin Woodman of Oz, which Ortiz co-conceived, designed and starred in. His breathtaking puppets won him an Obie Award.
Since then, Ortiz has fashioned puppets for shows at Theatre for a New Audience, The New Group and The Public Theater, notably Public Works' 2017 production of As You Like It. That's how he became involved with the program, which led to Hercules.
Ortiz's puppets are under wraps until the first performance (though you can see a few sneak peeks on his Instagram ). But he acknowledges that in terms of scale and profile, Hercules is the biggest project he's ever done.
"We're trying to do something that exists within Public Works' modest budget and style that can also give the Olympics opening ceremony a run for its money," Ortiz says. "So it's a fascinating dichotomy. I've gone pretty bold. No small, tabletop puppetry. I'm going for operatic and punchy. I think of puppetry as the CGI of theatre. There really are no limitations."
Ortiz cites Lion King genius Julie Taymor as an inspiration, which makes sense. Their aesthetics may be wildly different, but their low-tech, analog approach is the same. Don't expect King Kong-style blinking eyes and flaring nostrils at Hercules. Ortiz purposefully builds his puppets with fixed faces so the audience can project emotions onto them.
"It's something I really enjoy playing with because, if I sculpt it right, it should allow you to imagine the expressions have changed," he explains. "It only works because you perceive the life we're actively trying to put inside of it. An audience intellectually knows that when an actor takes off his wig, he isn't that character anymore. But a puppet is made to only be the character. In a way, we invest more in a puppet than we do in actors. Puppetry really is believing in dolls again."
For more information about how to enter to win FREE tickets to Hercules, visit the show's official website.
Top image: James Ortiz with his puppet for The Woodsman.
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