BWW Review: WOZZECK at Des Moines Metro Opera: A Thought Provoking Work of Art
Every so often, a production comes around that leaves you pondering about the show when it is done. For me, it's usually a jarring show that asks the audience to think about how we see things in the world, and if the way we see things can be adjusted or not. Des Moines Metro Opera's (DMMO) production of "WOZZECK" was a production that will leave you thinking about a topic that is very prevalent in our world today, mental illness. This production deals with a character that is dealing with insanity. What this production does well is having the idea of insanity prevalent in multiple aspects of the show.
Before we get too far into discussing this show, I want to personally commend everyone at DMMO for taking a chance with this production. Wozzeck is an opera that is not performed by many companies. This is partially due to the atonality of the music in the production. Atonal music can be very jolting to audiences as they are used to tonal music. They also took a risk in how they put the production that when put together, made for a very rewarding experience for the audience if they were open to it. The audience at the performance I attended on July 6, was open to the risk DMMO took and rewarded them with their applause. The applause after the 90-minute show would not stop. DMMO had to lower the "curtain" and turn on the house lights before the applause would die down.
Why is "Wozzeck" such a risky production to do? There are two things that need to be discussed in order to answer that question. The first is to look at the story of "Wozzeck" and then look at the history of the show. Wozzeck is a lower class soldier. At the start of the show, we see him shaving his captain, who teases Wozzeck about his wife and that she has been faithful to him, as well as teases that his child is not his. This sets off Wozzeck's journey into insanity. While picking up sticks with a fellow soldier Wozzeck starts to see visions. Later when he gets home, he finds himself unable to share these visions with his wife Marie, or even look at their son. As the show goes on Wozzeck continues to become more and more suspicious of Marie, and when he sees her dancing with a drum major becomes enraged in jealousy leading him to kill her and eventually himself.
This is where understanding the history behind the show comes in. When attending this show or any show with DMMO I highly recommend going to the pre-show talks to get a full understanding of what has led to their staging of the show. The story is based on a case study of a man by the name of Woyzeck. The spelling is different but correct. They explain this in the talkback. Woyzek was accused of murdering his wife and was one of the first people to use the plea of insanity. A doctor examined him and determined that he was sane, which became a controversial decision. It was so controversial that the doctor had to put out a case study explaining why he came to this conclusion. This was later turned into an unfinished play which the opera's composer Alban Berg attended the premiere of. Over the next 8 years, Berg would compose the opera. His choice to use atonal music came from the horrors that came out of World War 1. To him, the tonal music tradition of western music no longer made sense with what was going on at the time. While atonal music can be very jarring the first time you hear it, it had a tremendous effect on the show and helps illustrate the what was going on in the main character Wozzeck's head throughout the show.
One approach they took with this show was to have a fully female directing and designing team. It is refreshing to see production companies start to take this approach. Technical positions have been prominently filled by men. The women who made this production made an extremely memorable night that I won't soon forget. Each of these women took the idea of insanity and incorporated it into their different elements.
The first place we see this is the set and costumes designed by Vita Tzykun. As you walk into the auditorium you see what appears to be an interesting show curtain that is black with lines that go multiple different directions. What you might not realize from the top, is that this isn't a show curtain. It is several pieces intertwined together. As one piece is moved it takes you to the location that the scene takes place at. As the show goes on you realize how manic this is and helps illustrate what is going on in the mind of our main character Wozzeck. There is a moment towards the end of the show where you see each piece of the amazing set come in separately. This was an amazing way to showcase the complexity of the set, but also shows the finality of Wozzeck's death.
Tzykun's costumes also help with telling the story of the show. The costumes make it very clear that there are two different classes being discussed during the show. They do this by using earthier tones for the lower class and bolder colors for people in the higher class. To show how Wozzeck views the characters in the show, the costumes become exaggerated. One thing that was apparent to me was the more the characters antagonized Wozzeck, the more exaggerated their costumes were. One example of this is the captain, who laughs at Wozzeck throughout the show. His costume exaggeration makes him look like an overly plump person. For me, the padding of the actor was evident which played into the idea of exaggerating even more.
The lighting design by Kate Ashton also plays into this idea of illustrating Wozzeck's insanity on stage. One of the ways she does that is in the ways she chooses to light each scene. There are times in the show where the stage is flooded with colors specific to the mood of what is happening. At another point in the show, there is a beautiful moment with the lighting where Kate uses backlighting to light up what looks like a shell of sticks. She also uses floor lights in front of the audience to project light in yet another direction to illustrate some of the visions that Wozzeck has through the show.
With this technical of a show, it is imperative that the show has a director with a strong vision. The direction of Kristine McIntyre beautifully ties all of these aspects together. Her choices in staging use the sets, lights, and costumes to their fullest potential. Her contribution to staging insanity was in the staging of the 15 scenes within the show. Each scene was staged completely differently, yet it all effortlessly flowed together. Even the three scenes at Wozzeck's house, while in the same room, had their own unique view of the room. None of the items were ever in the same order as you came into the room. Her choices as a director have me excited to see next seasons production of "Sweeny Todd" which she will be directing.
While the directing and design elements in this production were extremely strong, in order to pull off a production of "Wozzeck," you have to have an equally strong cast. Wozzeck brings in a cast of mostly veterans to the DMMO stage. This production also features 3 people making their mainstage debuts this season. Each of the actors appearing in this production also has a strong grasp of the vision for this show.
The first characters to look at are the doctor performed by former Broadwayworld Des Moines Area Contributing Editor Zachary James and the Captain played by Corey Bix. The reason I've chosen to group these two together is that I feel their characters both are antagonist to Wozzeck. They each find ways to use the exaggerations their character has been given. In Zachary James performance, we get to see him use a hump and glasses from his first entrance. He uses his posture to accentuate the hump through each scene. When he stands tall the hump is visible but as he leans down to talk to people, it becomes more prevalent. The diction he brings to the doctor brings another level to his characters antagonizing of Wozzeck. It was menacing and impressive in the song between the Doctor and Wozzeck as the tempo made it seem like a patter song. Corey's portrayal of the Captain takes the opposite approach. His character's weight is what is exaggerated. To exaggerate this, he takes more of a slouch to his stance. It also helps with bringing the comedy needed to the character as he laughs at Wozzeck many times throughout the evening.
The next performances I feel I need to discuss are based off something I never thought I would say regarding opera. They are moments where a character's silence says more than anything the character could have said. The first comes from Benjamin Bjorklund's performance as Marie's child. Marie's child is on stage multiple times, but you don't hear from him until the end of the show. Each time he came on, his emotions were told by the movements he made. Because you could see the hurt and pain he went through during the show, the few words he says at the very end have a haunting quality to them
The other moment of the evening was between Gregory Warren's performance of Andres. Andres is a friend of Wozzeck who is the first person to hear from Wozzeck about the visions he is seeing. There is Andres puts his hand on Wozzeck's shoulder to comfort him. For me, this small touch told everything we needed to know about the friendship between the two characters. What Warren was able to say with this gesture, made his singing the followed sting even more. After this heartfelt moment he turns on his friend and for a lack of better words, calls him crazy. It was a truly heart-wrenching moment to watch.
While many things in this production are exaggerated to help illustrate the idea of insanity, there are a few performers who aren't given exaggerated costumes and show the class struggle of being poor. One of those performers was Sara Gartland as Marie. She brought a subtle and nuanced performance to Marie that allows you to experience the pain and struggle her character goes through.. In her performance these choices in the way she shows the love Marie has for her child The interactions she has with the child on stage, from telling stories, to putting the child to bed, reminded me of how we interact with young children. We want them to see the good in the world no matter how bad things are. As the show continues, the subtle choices she makes as her character struggles when she reads a redemption story from the bible and longs for that redemption herself. For me, the choices she made, makes Marie's death even more tragic.
There is one performance from the evening to me that took everything and tied it together, and that is Michael Mayes astonishing performance as Wozzeck. Every moment Mayes had onstage illustrated how Wozzeck was losing his sanity. The faces he made each time he was having a vision you could see the horror in his face as to what he was seeing. You didn't need dialogue to understand what he was seeing, you just needed to know it was horrible. What was even more impressive was his deep and full singing voice. The way he controlled his voice from volume, to intensity, to vibrato, beautifully reflected what his character was facing in each scene. It is a performance that will stay with me for a long time.
From the staging to the cast, Des Moines Metro Opera's production of Berg's "Wozzeck" is a powerful and unforgettable evening at the opera. Each element illustrates takes the idea of insanity and weaves it into the fabric of the show. While the show is about a character going insane, it truly is a case study on how we not only view music but how we view mental issues. You know how good a show is when it makes you want to scream "NO" to what the main character is going through. This show had me wanting to do that multiple times. This show is a not to be missed production. And with only three performances left, you need to hurry to get your tickets before it's too late. To find out more about this amazing production, visit http://desmoinesmetroopera.org/productions/wozzeck/