nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 6, 2005
Claustrophobic and rather sensationally vivid, Andrew Frank's new production of Buchner's Woyzeck is every bit the angst-ridden young man's fever dream that it is billed as. It begins with a brutal murder: Woyzeck, the alienated young soldier at the center of this play who is widely regarded as drama's first "modern" protagonist, slits the throat of his pretty young wife Marie. Twice. The rest of the play, in flashback, tells us why, or at least tells us as much as it's possible to tell about why anybody does anything, which is indeed the crux of the play. It won't spoil a thing to say that it ends with a more detailed and bloodier rendering of the same murder, followed by Woyzeck's own death. It feels inevitable in the context of the drama; the question to toy with is whether it or anything is inevitable in life.
Timeless and essential issues are considered here, as you can see, from a very young man's perspective (Buchner was 24 when he wrote Woyzeck and died before he finished it). The ideas in this play—in terms of both theme and form—have gone on to inform the work of many 20th century dramatists, so if you've seen Beckett and Brecht and the rest of the usual suspects, you will perhaps be most interested in discovering how Woyzeck functions as startling and revolutionary antecedent to their work; I was. Episodic, bleak, profane (scatological, even), and reckless in its disregard of both practical and political theatre convention, it feels at once modern and remote, like a creepy German expressionist painting. At least that's how Frank has framed it, putting it right in our faces, with the audience seated on two sides of the very constricted MTS playing area (it looks more like a runway than a stage—spectators literally have to pull their legs in to make room for the actors). Maruti Evans's set is spare but still feels too big for this space, contributing to the illusion of distortion; Chris Dallos has bathed the whole thing in eerie blue light, interrupted for crowd scenes by a bright artificial illumination, that reminds us that all of what we're seeing is filtered through the disintegrating consciousness of the very troubled title character. It is, all in all, an effective and totally cool staging.
What happens in the play is that Woyzeck is assaulted by—and then finally surrenders to—the growing meaninglessness of the world around him. We see him at work, shaving his Captain's beard or on guard duty, guarding—what? We see him at play, at a carnival or getting drunk in a bar. And we see him with his wife, Marie; and we see her accepting jewelry from a handsome Drum Major and giving him what you'd expect in return. The dynamic of the play suggests that Marie's infidelity is as important as the indifference of everyone else—the Captain tells Woyzeck that he's dumb and has no virtue; a Doctor has made Woyzeck a human guinea pig, feeding him nothing but peas for a month—to Woyzeck's eventual breakdown. Which suggests questions about free will (not to mention compassion and human feeling) that are obvious and unanswerable.
Jason Howard inhabits Woyzeck so organically that he holds our sympathy throughout, no mean feat. His is a very physical, very meticulous performance, and in the confined space we see it as if under a microscope. The rest of the actors are equally impressive: Nancy Sirianni, hard-edged and opaque as Marie; Edward Sears, stern but sensual as the Drum Major; Jeffrey Plunkett, dripping puzzlement and noblesse oblige as the imperious, enigmatic Captain; and, in smaller roles, Daryl Boling, Maximillian Davis, Fiona Jones, Mac Rogers, Benjamin Thomas, Jennifer Gordon Thomas, Kim Vasilakis, and Lex Woutas (who gets to deliver my favorite line in the play, as a drunk at a tavern: "I wish our noses were two of those flowers that clowns have, and we could spray each other in the neck").
Having never seen a production of Woyzeck before this, I am glad to have had a look at it. Frank and his colleagues satisfy our curiosity about this famous but not-so-frequently-done work of theatre. And they pique our interest in whatever they have in mind to do next.