Projecting Woyzeck

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My game-to-see-everything theater buddy Joel has told me that if there is one play he won’t ever go to again, it’s Georg Buchner’s unfinished masterpiece of theatrical naturalism Woyzeck (he, obviously, had been scarred by Greg Allen’s eccentric version produced by the now defunct Greasy Joan & Co. from several years ago, which I thought was actually pretty decent).  So at the risk of being snarled at, I didn’t drag him or any of my other theater buds to The Woyzeck Project, a combination of The Hypocrites’ idiosyncratic view of Woyzeck, and About Face Theatre’s world premiere of Sylvan Oswald’s Pony, in my mind, a quite perplexing take on the piece, both running in repertory at the Chopin Theatre.  I personally like seeing different productions of Woyzeck because its fragmented, opaque, yet timelessly tragic nature allows brazen, gutsy directors and playwrights to project their own interpretations, preoccupations, and agendas on to it for fascinating theater without really destroying its spirit (in 2008, I scuttled plans to see the hot Icelandic director Gísli Örn Gardarsson’s version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s New Wave Festival which incorporated a circus atmosphere and  a large swimming pool where the actors swam laps during the performance).  I gotta say though, despite some fascinating artistic choices in the two plays, The Woyzeck Project is somewhat of a missed opportunity in my mind, since both, individually and together, don’t truly present any cohesive, intriguing, and insightful take on Buchner’s work.

If there is one theater director in this town whose vision of Woyzeck I looked forward to seeing, it’s The Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney’s.  I think Graney’s ballsy, out-of-the-box, extremely kinetic directorial sensibility, which has both impressed and infuriated me in the past, lends itself to the work.  And at the beginning of his Woyzeck, when most of the cast attired in nuclear reactor jumpsuits and gas masks are staring from behind plastic sheets at a similarly outfitted body lying immobile in the floor while Woyzeck sweeps around it, I strapped myself into my seat and got ready to be bowled over.  But bowled over never came, and incomprehensibility set in.  I think Graney takes Buchner’s fragmented work and, if it is even possible, makes it more fragmented and audience-distancing.  In this audience member’s view, none of the scenes make any sense – they look like they are strung together with no method to the madness, sort of like a deck of cards being endlessly shuffled for no apparent reason.  I’m able to recognize the characters and narrative arcs from having seen previous productions of the play, but I don’t think they really make any sense in this particular version.  There’s a scene near the middle of the hour long production in which Woyzeck (a very hard-working Geoff Button, one of  the best actors in this city in my opinion, who seem to be curiously acting in a different, more naturalistic play than the rest of the cast) is being cross-examined and harangued by the flamboyant Herr Doktor (a funny, over-the-top Ryan Bollentino), which is surreal, bawdy, outrageous – the one scene that is representative of the Graney production which I imagined and expected.

Instead this Woyzeck has multiple repetition of lines; disjointed scenes and exaggerated line readings from the cast members; a somewhat extraneous character played by Zeke Sulkes as a combination emcee, observer, carnival barker; a reindeer on set which I don’t understand the metaphorical or symbolic importance of (or maybe there isn’t any???); and a truly bizarre dance number near the end of the show. Throughout the show, I never receive any clarity or meaningful insight on Buchner’s themes around desperation, bleakness, and social oppression; or around power and exploitation; or around gender politics (there’s an intriguing lesbian undercurrent running though the scenes between Marie and her best friend Kathe).  Instead there is a lot of preciousness going around, a quality I’ve never associated with this work.

I’m not even sure what to think of Oswald’s Pony, directed by About Face Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  I was curious about the play when I initially heard about its premise – Woyzeck with transgendered characters.  Pony is a transman who arrives at what seems to be a remote small town and falls in love with a woman, curiously also named Marie, who is obsessed with a murder that has echoes of the Buchner tale.  Pony also submits himself to psychological tests conducted by an older transman, and is pursued by a mysterious youth.  The cast works really hard and tries their best to create believable, relatable characters (Janet Ulrich Brooks is especially memorable as the trans psychologist Cav, brittle and sad yet touching in her longing for meaningful human interaction), but the play has more holes than the Augusta National Golf Club.  Why does Pony, a transgendered person passing as a man end up in this seemingly small-minded town?  He is jumpy, tormented, nerve-wracked, but what is his emotional conflict? Is he running from something, somewhere?  How did he get involved in Cav’s psychological testing?  Why is Cav conducting these tests in a remote, small town – shouldn’t he be in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, where the trans sample size is larger? Why is Marie obsessed with the murder? Why does she lie?  Where are the small-minded, bigoted townspeople (other than the lesbian bartender Stell being hostile to Pony, Oswald doesn’t show us any scenes where Pony is persecuted or oppressed by the townspeople, which is, uhmm,  sort of a key theme in Woyzeck)?  Why is Heath, the young guy with boatloads of money and secrets, in town? What the heck is this play trying to say?  Why should we care?  What does all of this have to do with Buchner?  So many questions, and so much time (Pony clocks in at two hours with intermission), but none of it answered.

Woyzeck and Pony run in repertory at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, until May 22.

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