BWW Review: WOYZECK Burns with Tragic Inevitability
Woyzeck, once an unfinished proto-expressionist play depicting the tragic results of jealousy and constant dehumanizing treatment, has evolved since its inception the 1830s. Still a play about distrust, classism, and manifest insanity, Woyzeck is an avant-garde production that includes stylistic elements from several theatrical eras. Ensemble's production of Woyzeck, directed by Jonathan Fox, burns with the tragic inevitability of a man on the brink of destruction.
Woyzeck is a fascinating play in both construction and concept. Left incomplete by original playwright Georg Büchner, who passed away in 1837, Woyzeck wasn't first produced until 1913 when a new set of artists molded the existing fragments into a fresh version of the show. This act of appropriation and transformation was not the last, and Woyzeck exists in numerous variations. The version produced by Ensemble is a story of murder and lunacy set in the surreality of an apocalyptic circus. Like the title character, Woyzeck (Stephen Van Dorn), who exists on the edge of sanity, so too does his vision of reality--the gritty, picked bones of a carnival site--exist on the fringe of civilization.
The narrative of the show is presented through the stark and smoky folk-inspired music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. The music integrates well into the production--the songs are emblematic reflections of characters' emotions and experiences, which is a departure from the more typical musical theatre style in which songs tend to function as expository communication of heightened passion. The music sets the tone of the production, and Woyzeck has a steadfast, earthy connection to American folk culture: it's a catastrophic, dust bowl-inspired tragedy with social consciousness.
Based on true events, Woyzeck explores the diminishing rationality of a low-level soldier who is consistently treated without dignity. He's a tool for the upper class, a workhorse peasant for the military who allows himself to be the subject of tormenting medical experimentation in order to earn money for his girlfriend and their baby. Despite Woyzeck's devotion to their common-law family, a torturous affair begins when his girlfriend, Maria (Gina Manziello), becomes infatuated with a handsome drum major (Steven Good). The conflict within Maria is vibrant and heartrending: she maintains an almost desperate, lost affection for Woyzeck, but his mounting insanity alienates him from the other characters, and Maria falls to temptation. Once aware of the indiscretion, Woyzeck is driven to an anguished rage that stems from a dangerous combination of jealousy, regret, and his unbalanced nature. The situation is handled abruptly and violently. It's macabre and inexorable, a tragic story of love and insanity.
It was exciting to see Fox take Woyzeck to a dark and sinister place: this play was the most ambitious and provocative production I've seen from Ensemble in the recent past. There was an appropriate and scintillating spark of rebellious energy on stage, and it did not disappoint. Woyzeck is a play of importance in theatrical repertory, and it's exciting to see it produced with an eye for the twisted splendor of a character whose only escape is ultimate and unforgiving. Woyzeck is more concept than character: he's a personification of crumbling sanity. His relationships are complex, but he's utilitarian in a saga that condemns a brutal brand of dehumanizing classism. Delirious and desperate, Woyzeck is a graphic, expressionistic vision of compulsory breakdown.
I enjoyed Woyzeck in its disjointed frenzy. The eeriest aspects were often the most striking: Marie, stationary on a lone, carousel horse, spinning slowly--a vision of longing and loneliness; a nightmarish cartoon of a mad scientist (Matt Gottlieb)--stylized and ruthless; and Woyzeck's horrific visions of a burning Armageddon, a remorseless, smoldering horizon. However, there was room for the concepts presented in Fox's Woyzeck to be taken further, still--I always appreciate it when the alarming elements of a play are pushed to the very brink of their potential to disturb.
I'm enthusiastic about this show and the direction of Ensemble's season. Woyzeck is a successful production that brings both mindfulness and defiance to the stage; it's lovely and hideous--a narrative, musical dream cycle of moments representing the tragic realities of love, loss, and the damaging effects of social hierarchy and human brutality.
Ensemble Theatre Company Presents:
Directed by Jonathan Fox
@ The New Vic
April 16th-May 3rd