I have seen Woyzeck performed in a ghostly mist with silent characters holding up signs; I have seen it with the scenes performed in random order and the audience walking from set to set in small separate groups; I have heard the Alban Berg opera version (Wozzeck). Surprise! Georg Büchner’s way-ahead-of-its-time, experimental, unfinished play can make a pretty fine straight drama, too.
Director Jonathan Barsness has adapted this extraordinarily modern-seeming 1830’s work into a present-day setting and made various stylistic changes, while staying true to the essence of the story. That story could only have been written by a very young man plagued by youthful existential angst (the brilliant Büchner died at 23).
Franz (here “Frank”) Woyzeck has had an out-of-wedlock baby with his dissatisfied girlfriend Maria, and the not-quite-family is struggling to make ends meet. In this version, instead of being a soldier, Woyzeck (the excellent David Michael Holmes) scrapes by doing odd jobs. In a terrible economic climate, a sense of hopelessness pervades his interactions with authority figures—the doctor who pays him as an experimental subject, the Mayor (in the original, an army Captain) who employs him from time to time; with Maria (superbly played by Clare Schmidt); and with his peers, like his friend Andres, and his rival for Maria’s affections, a virile, cocky fireman.
You can hear the chill wind as Woyzeck and Andres go ice fishing. The nearly featureless set is an icy grey. The setting is Minnesota, and everyone’s cold; even the onstage musicians (the band Colonna Sonora, providing sneaky incidental music) wear coats and hats. In this grim setting, Woyzeck can’t keep Maria’s interest warm, can’t find steady employment, can’t even ring the bell at a carnival to win a stuffed toy.
It’s depressing, for sure, but there’s enough humor to make the grimness a bit less than unrelenting. And despite its slightly absurdist touches, it’s an intensely personal play; one can’t help hearing the playwright, reaching across the centuries, howling out the sadness that’s part and parcel of great intelligence in an immature brain. How sad that he died without ever growing into a man who could take things less personally and put his intense emotions into perspective. And how amazing that with his few works he influenced new movements in literature and drama even to the present day.
Yet this production provides sufficient proof that this work, which poet Alison Croggon has called the “ur-play of modern theatre,” was a lot more than an experiment. Toy Box Theatre Company with Barsness at the helm also brought us last year’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and clearly they’re just as comfortable with modern material as they are with the 17th century, for Woyzeck is nothing if not modern. They’ve whittled down the character list, as they did with the previous production, but retained what’s important and presented it feelingly, cuttingly, and in thoroughly Büchnerian spirit. In addition to a fine cast (several of whom were also in ‘Tis Pity) and the atmospheric live music, the production boasts superb technical talent, along with evocative movement direction by the dancer Amy Blumberg, who also appears on stage as a melty-jerky mechanical man created by the Carny (the always excellent Ron Bopst). The playwright lived his short life in a ferment of new thinking and scientific excitement; we’re still thinking about the issues his circle was pondering (and you may ask yourself: should robots have rights?). But he went deeper than that. “Ordinary things,” moans the Mayor, “are what make me melancholy.” But, while art may not always be able to lift the melancholy, when done as well as this it proves we can go beyond the ordinary.
Toy Box Theatre‘s Woyzeck is almost sure to leave you thinking—and nodding in appreciation at the talent Barsness has applied and gathered. It runs through November 12 at the Choicirciati Cultural Center, 64 E. 4 St., New York City. Click here for tickets.
Photos by Teresa Olson: 1. David Michael Holmes as Woyzeck and Ryan Reilly as Andres. 2. David Michael Holmes as Woyzeck. 3. The band Colonna Sonora.