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"Woyzeck" -- Two Views


Edward Hogg and Myriam Acharki. Photo, PA

Adapted and directed by Daniel Kramer
St. Ann’s Warehouse
Opened Nov. 13, 2006
Tues. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
$35 (718) 254-8779
Closes Dec. 3, 2006

Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons

Reviewed by Philippa Wehle


Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Nov. 15, 2006
The most difficult task in writing about London's Gate Theatre production of "Woyzeck," now at St. Ann's Warehouse, is restraining oneself from using so many superlatives that skeptical minds might suspect ulterior motives. Let it be said, this reviewer never met Daniel Kramer, the bright young adapter/director responsible for the production, before opening night. But she is convinced he has a long and promising future ahead of him.

"Woyzeck," Georg Buchner's 19th century play (left incomplete at his death at 23) about a soldier who kills his mistress in a jealous rage, is considered a pivotal work for modern dramatists. But it is not an easy play to produce: the scenes sometimes seem to be written in outline form and they do not necessarily flow into each other, while the dialogue is filled with the kind of ambiguity that inspired Kafka, Brecht and Beckett.

Kramer has not so much solved these problems as embraced them. The result is a "Woyzeck" that combines irony and sincerity, comedy and tragedy, ambiguity and clarity. Above all, it is a "Woyzeck" that is brilliant and highly entertaining.

The brilliance starts with Neil Irish's set, a barren field punctuated with leafless trees and dominated by a huge cross, more forbidding than forgiving. In one corner hangs a handless clock; in another corner sits a jukebox.

Music plays an important part in "Woyzeck," and is the source of much, though not all, of the entertainment. At first, Kramer uses recorded classical music, representing the thin surface of civilized order, sometimes descending into regimentation; then he switches to rock ‘n' roll (mostly Elvis Presley) revealing the more carnal instincts that lie just below the civilized façade. A jarring siren marks the time as the handless clock cannot.

But what turns this "Woyzeck" into an unmitigated triumph is the exceptional cast. Edward Hogg, with his thin, plaintive voice and hangdog expression takes Woyzeck from a symbol of suffering humanity to a suffering human. He is an easy prey for Marie (the excellent Moroccan-Belgian actress Myriam Acharki) a seductress who finds herself seduced by the virile Drum Major (David Harewood).

Josh Cole is outstanding as the sly and slimy Showman who profits from abusing man and beast (in Kramer and Buchner's world they may be interchangeable); and Tony Guilfoyle turns the Doctor who experiments on Woyzeck into a figure of Dr. Frankenstein horror.

"Woyzeck" integrates song, gymnastics and dance (highlights include a fat lady and a transvestite in one scene and the sexy Harewood gyrating his hips and rippling his muscles in another).

Kramer's adaptation deviates considerably from the original (for one thing it's much longer), but his changes are so well integrated and so appropriate it's difficult to be sure exactly where he is merely interpreting and where he does something more. Most people, however, probably won't care. Indeed they shouldn't.

With some embarrassment at the cliché, this reviewer has to say it: if there's one play you see this year, make it "Woyzeck." [Simmons]

Reviewed by Philippa Wehle Nov.16, 2006
London's Gate Theatre's very contemporary reading of Buchner's Woyzeck has come to New York, at St. Ann's Warehouse in Dumbo. Adapted and directed by 29 year-old American Daniel Kramer and brilliantly performed by an outstanding cast, it is not to be missed. Designer Neil Irish takes full advantage of the cavernous space at St. Ann's Warehouse to create a multi-purpose, suggestive set that serves as forest, a carnival side show, dance hall, bar, the Doctor's lab, the Captain's home and Marie's hovel. David Howe's evocative lighting with its purple/green hewes artfully completes the desolate landscape with its few bare trees and fallen autumn leaves in which Buchner's poor, wretched soldier must navigate his way. A soundscape of music, from Elvis to Dolly Parton, brings Buchner's 19th century drama into our time, making this Woyzeck "a high-octane, rock and roll reinvention of Buchner's classic."

It is early morning somewhere in a forest and Woyzeck and his friend Andres venture forth from stage rear to collect twigs. Their mode of transportation, an infantalising little child's tricycle, says it all: Woyzeck is small, meek, and childlike in a world of larger-than-life users and abusers. When he pops some of those green peas the Doctor has been having him eat for the past three months, his crunching reverberates throughout the empty forest as if to suggest how much his diet of peas is affecting his behavior. He is already hearing mysterious voices coming from under the ground. Are they the voices of free masons as Andres suggests, or are they the first signs of his descent into madness?

A large clock, its hands missing, hangs over the action. Every time the clock lights up and a piercing bell rings, Woyzeck must drop everything and report to duty, whether that means appearing on time at roll call, shaving the Captain, or participating in the Doctor's experiments. Everywhere he turns, he is made to feel small and insignificant. The self-important Captain may seem to be solicitous of Woyzeck's predicament, but he clearly enjoys his power over the wretched barber, lecturing him on morality and values and laughing at what he calls his stupidity. The evil Doctor is equally sadistic, ready to grab poor Woyzeck on any occasion, to feel his pulse and force him to urinate in a little vial all the while pontificating in Latin about the results of his experiments.

At first Woyzeck finds comfort with Marie and their baby, the one ray of light in his otherwise bleak existence. The one time they go on an outing together is sweetly portrayed, a quick snapshop of a happy couple off to the carnival on Woyzeck's little tricycle. It is short lived, however. As soon as they arrive at the carnival, a freakish man/monkey figure confronts Woyzeck at the entrance; a sort of "animalized human being" according to the carnival barker, that seems to mirror the young soldier's own condition. Equally disturbing encounters await him and Marie inside the tent. Hanging from the ceiling are bird cages, a wedding dress, a large mirror, and the head of a dress maker's dummy wearing a pair of sparkling earrings, all holding symbolic meaning of the tragedy to come. There is even another strange half horse/half man creature to remind Woyzeck of his low status.

Enter the striking, self-assured Drum Major and Woyzeck's destiny is sealed for good. How can Marie resist this attractive fellow circling round her with those beautiful earrings he is offering her? They circle each other, he dangling the earrings, she trying not to give in but the temptation is too great. She runs into his arms, loyalty to Woyzeck and their child no longer an option.

It is no wonder that Woyzeck, racked with jealousy, persecuted by everyone around him, and weakened by his poor diet, finally loses all control and falls apart. Under the circumstances, killing Marie is no doubt inevitable, but witnessing his stabbing of her lifeless body numerous times is profoundly disturbing. It is no less disturbing to watch Woyzeck turn their bundled baby upside down as if to kill it too, only to discover that the bundle held nothing but green and purple dust.

Yes, the Gate Theatre's Woyzeck is truly riveting and Edward Hogg's Woyzeck is astounding. For a lowly soldier weakened by poor diet and the constant demands made on his energy, Hogg's performance is extraordinarily physical: he literally runs from one appointment to the next, furiously peddles his unwieldy tricycle around the large stage, manages to find the strength to fight the Drum Major in a demanding dance number, stabs Marie with inhuman strength and finally climbs up a rope to hang himself. But Hogg's performance is not all physical by any means; it is beautifully nuanced; he may be racing about but he also lets us feel Woyzeck's pain, his anguish and his bewilderment. He makes us understand that although the barber's attempts at expressing his views about nature and the natural man are laughed at by the Captain, they are in fact cogent and interesting. All the more reason to run not walk to St. Ann's Warehouse before it's too late. [Wehle]

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