Woyzeck, an infinitely malleable, intellectually fascinating play that beat Brecht to the punch of modern theater by a century, is a director’s dream. Left unfinished by Georg Buchner before his death of typhus at the age of 23, Woyzeck has been adapted, blown up, and ripped apart countless times by countless translators, directors (of stage and film), and librettists. Part of the play’s very legacy is its ability to be manipulated.
But calling Woyzeck malleable doesn’t even begin to describe its multiple levels of complexity, addressing, as it does, crises that are as much existential, linguistic, and ethical as they are social, economic, and political. It should come as no surprise that we see two very different stagings of Woyzeck at the same time, one in one of the most notorious off-off-Broadway theaters in the East Village, the other in an opera house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. What is surprising however, is the dynamic between the two.
Let’s compare the two descriptions of the play:
- A relatively straightforward, conservative staging, with the main innovation being a group of sirens torturing a conflicted, sympathetic Woyzeck into committing his murderous act. A nymphomaniac Marie who is killed by stabbing. Set against the backdrop of the War in Iraq, with “Amazing Grace” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” featured heavily. Virtually flawless execution.
- A wild, ravenous production by an Icelandic theater troupe, featuring circus theatricals, an industrial set, a beach ball, and a ridiculous use of a pool. Punk rock enfant terrible Nick Cave wrote the music and lyrics (along with Warren Ellis). Marie is played as a conflicted, sympathetic women in a Snow White dress caught in an impossible situation by a suave Drum Major in a purple suit. A pathetic, monkey-like Woyzeck in his underwear, which looks like a diaper. Multiple problems with the sound and crowd control.
30 years ago, the former would have been in the opera house, and the latter in the experimental East Village theater. But comparing these two productions of Woyzeck showed me just how much the public role of experimental theater has changed. Once a haven for daring, wild, and unbridled theater, the East Village and off-off-Broadway have gotten more predictable, safe, and maybe even stale. Meanwhile, mainstream, upper-middle-class, and older audiences are more willing to pay good money to see wild, over-the-top productions by foreign directors. The question that remains is whether this social arrangement, which may be unprecedented in artistic history, is any better or worse than what we’ve had in the past.
Some would say that having the daring stuff where the money is is a reality that previous theatrical generations could only dream of. It is certainly true that it equates to a minor miracle that more mainstream audiences could even begin to digest the antics of Vesturport Theater's manic production. The problem, however, is that those audiences may not be able to digest the production with the same intellectual clarity as younger, more radical-minded theatergoers.
Under the direction of Gísli Öm Gardarsson, this Woyzeck is as comical, manic, and intentionally reckless as it is intellectually shallow (also perhaps intentionally). Cave and Ellis’s score may be the best thing about the play: a brilliant, intermittently tender and insane score that goes through virtually every stage of Cave’s career arc. In a less mainstream context, this production would inspire similar glorious recklessness (it’s a rock thing). At BAM, however, it has probably just produced indigestion.
The Counting Squares Theatre production of Woyzeck at Under St. Marks is smaller in scope, both technically and intellectually. It features stunning, disciplined choreography by John O’Malley, nearly universally fitting performances, and deft direction by Joshua Chase Gold. It’s focus is not on acrobatics or noise rock, but on something rather old-fashioned: current events and national history, with War in Iraq imagery mixing with an occasional anachronous allusion to World War II. It’s the easier version of the play to appreciate, and not nearly as alienating as the production at BAM.
The question, however, is whether a production in this setting should be so easy. The Under St. Marks Woyzeck seems more like a product of a cast not willing to take as many risks. In the program, the cast and crew talk about how thrilled they are to be performing together in Woyzeck, which is roughly the equivalent of Jews being thrilled to celebrate Yom Kippur. It’s arguable that a staging of a production of Woyzeck that can best be described as “solid” is the worst possible way to stage the play. If you’re not taking significant risks in staging a play like Woyzeck, what’s the point in staging it? That rule should apply to all stagings of Woyzeck; the last place it should be invoked is off-off Broadway with a staff of young theater artists with next to nothing to lose.
Both productions are far from perfect or transcendent, just as both productions have flashes of brilliance and theatrical prowess. If the settings of the productions had been reversed, we’d be raving about how we’re getting an eclectic, diverse mix of productions of one of the most beloved, constantly challenging plays of the last 200 years. Instead, we get two productions that would be better off learning a few things from one another.
Woyzeck by Georg Buchner.
Directed and adapted by Gísli Öm Gardarsson; adapted into English by Ruth Little, Gísli Öm Gardarsson and Jón Atli Jónasson; original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis; lyrics by Nick Cave; stage design by Börkur Jónsson; lighting design by Lárus Björnsson; costume design by Filippiá Elisdóttir. Photo by Richard Termine.
Starring Ingvar E. Sigurdsson (Woyzeck), Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir (Marie), Víkingur Kristjánsson (Captain), Harpa Arnarsdóttir (Doctor), Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (Drum Major); Ólafur Egill Egilsson (Andres), Árni Pétur Gudjónsson (Fiddler), Erlendur Eiríksson (Sergeant), Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Entertainer), and Jóhannes Níels Sigurdsson (The Swan/Doctor's Assistant).
The Vestuport Theater's Version of Woyzeck was performed at the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week.
UNDER St. Marks:
Adapted and directed by Joshua Chase Gold; scenic design by Sarah B. Brown; lighting design by Jessica Burgess; costume design by Karen Walcott; musical direction and arrangement by Andrew Sotomayor; choreography by John O'Malley. Photos by Counting Squares Theatre.
Starring Kendra Holton (Girl 1), Deborah Radloff (Girl 2), Kristin Stewart (Girl 3), Ryan Nicholoff (Woyzeck), Jarred Baugh (Andres), Dena Kology (Marie), Madeleine Maby (Margret), Aaron Kirkpatrick (Captain), Dan Kane (Drum Major), Stephen F. Arnoczy (Doctor).
The Counting Squares Theater Group's production of Woyzeck runs at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place) until October 29. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at www.horseTRADE.info.Powered by Sidelines