Volume 19 | Issue 28 | November 24 - 30, 2006

A dour German classic gets a rock-n-roll facelift

Written by Georg Büchner
Adapted and Directed by Daniel Kramer
Starring Edward Hogg
A Gate Theater London Production
Showing through December 3
St. Ann’s Warehouse
38 Water Street, DUBMO, Brooklyn

Edward Hogg in Daniel Kramer’s inventive adaptation of the 1830 classic, “Woyzeck”

By Jennifer Demeritt

With the painfully loud ringing of a barracks bell, the audience is yanked into the consciousness of Woyzeck, the title character of Georg Büchner’s classic play, which runs through December 3 at St. Ann’s Warehouse. This attack on the senses is an apt beginning for the tragic story of a lowly, powerless soldier — every day of his life probably starts like this. It also signals the director Daniel Kramer’s ambition to inject “Woyzeck” with the kinetic power and shocking newness it had for audiences 150 years ago.

Its story is simple: the impoverished solider Woyzeck participates in an experiment that requires him to subsist only on peas, which slowly drives him into derangement. When his common-law wife Marie is seduced by the arrogant Drum Major, Woyzeck spirals into jealousy, rage, and madness. The play’s central theme about the dehumanizing effects of poverty was revolutionary when it written in the 1830s — critics regard it as the first modern play — but its message has saturated contemporary culture and lost its power to surprise and excite. Add to this the story’s swift downward trajectory — no plot twists, just a vertical drop from bad to worse to utterly hopeless — and “Woyzeck” could become the sort of dour and earnest show that’s only appealing to theater geeks and depressives.

Daniel Kramer meets this challenge by creating a production that delights the senses and fascinates the mind. The show is visually stunning, with a spare, elegant set design that capitalizes on St. Ann’s cavernous performance space. The stage is level with the first row of seats, with just a sliver of space between it and the audience. When the actors are downstage, they’re so close you can almost touch them, which lends breathtaking intimacy to the domestic scenes with Marie and Woyzeck. Behind that intimate edge stretches a vast and spectral landscape framed by minimal set elements — a series of backlit screens, a row of trees, a window frame — where the actors march, dive, slither, climb, dance, and fight.

As Woyzeck, Edward Hogg turns in a performance of remarkable sensitivity and athleticism. In his handsome face, you can see the conflicted emotions rippling under the surface as he struggles to reconcile the demands of authority with his natural urges. When he breaks into action, he moves with the agility of an acrobat.

With the exception of Marie, played by Myriam Acharki, the other characters are written as two-dimensional caricatures, which presents a welcome opportunity for comic relief in the midst of so much German seriousness. The sadistic Doctor, the condescending Sergeant, and the adulterous Drum Major all make ripe targets for satire. A pointless argument between the Sergeant and the Doctor degenerates into slapstick, and the Drum Major’s victory dance after he seduces Marie makes a brilliant comic interlude. Played by hunkalicious David Harewood, the Drum Major preens and vamps like a drag queen, pumping out pure fun for the audience.

This production is being promoted as a “rock and roll ‘Woyzeck,’” with Elvis and Dolly Parton songs scattered throughout. A few of the songs seem too obvious to be interesting — Elvis crooning the blues in case we didn’t notice that Woyzeck is a long-suffering common man, and Dolly Parton singing “Nine to Five” while the women do laundry — but most earn their place, adding a layer of meaning or an ironic twist. The Elvis songs in particular form a running commentary about masculinity and the ways society destroys or distorts it. Rock and roll, the music of testosterone, is the perfect medium for this message, and the King of Rock and Roll the ultimate messenger.

In a less intelligent show, the rock music might be no more than a gimmick. This production of “Woyzeck” certainly has its share of look-at-me cleverness, but in Daniel Kramer’s deft hands, the seemingly disparate elements of tragedy, farce, Elvis, and circus tricks (yes, there are a few of those too) come together in a captivating dream world. The beautiful set design and stellar acting ensure that this “Woyzeck” engages the audience’s heart as well as its mind and its eye.

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