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Dark Hollow: An Appalachian Woyzeck

nytheatre.com review by Stephen Cedars
August 14, 2012

What a crazy powerhouse of a play Georg Büchner's Woyzeck is.  Its reputation often seems to rest on its formalistic innovation, its ahead-of-its-time expressionistic shape of thematically related scenes that deliver atmosphere over strict narrative.  

But what makes Woyzeck so resonant (where, say, Pirandello's innovation is more often relegated to textbook than stage) is in fact its story, which hits deep archetypal wellsprings of the human potential for cruelty through a tale of a beleaguered young solider Woyzeck, who murders his common-law wife after the world's humiliations grow too fierce for him to handle.  Dark Hollow: An Appalachian Woyzeck, currently being performed in FringeNYC, makes the choice to transplant Büchner's story into Depression-Era Appalachia, which seems high-concept but ultimately translates the play's cynicism in remarkable ways.  It maintains Büchner's scene structure and characters but frames them around a live band and a plethora of haunting songs (most traditional) that are steeped in a willful acceptance of death and futility.

When the play works, it's fantastic.  Some of the songs - like "Pretty Polly" or "Shady Grove" - carry deep wellsprings of strength and darkness that the play discovers through a well-controlled atmospheric staging. There are funny moments but they come out of the dankness rather than overshadowing it, and even the excitable crowd scenes maintain the air of a Christ-haunted society unable to manage its original sin.  As Woyzeck, Kevin Kash brings a severe intensity that is constantly deepened as he is consistently battered by his doctor, drill sergeant, and even the mother of his child.  And the adaptation finds a similar complication to that of the original play through its setting: while much of Woyzeck's ultimate crime can be explained in terms of poverty, small-mindedness, and social cruelty, his visions come from somewhere much deeper than simple conditioning.  There's a nearly religious conviction to his mania (even if we do explain it in terms of the experiments he agrees to suffer for money) that finds an effective equivalent in rural Christianity.  Considering it's a FringeNYC show, the well-oiled production, which manages to deliver this atmosphere with seeming ease despite a large cast, live music, and complicated transitions, is particularly noteworthy.

Ironically, the times when the play doesn't work are perhaps due to this very asset.  Some of the singing is simply too good and practiced to plumb the depths of the music (there's a reason the weathered creak of Dock Boggs strikes heavier than the sultry edge of Alison Krauss can), and there's a strange tendency for the actors to present them as though in a traditional musical, breaking the action to present the song rather than letting it emerge from and be part of the action.  And there are times when the stylized performances - though well directed and delivered - work against the show's inescapable atmosphere.

But what this team (adaptor Elizabeth Chaney and director Alkis Papoutis) has done is stay true to a legend while not letting themselves be hampered by it.  For both the overly-familiar and the neophyte, it's a great production that can make you forget why the play is so great so that you can remember why it's so damn scary.