Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Woyzeck" (Vesturport Theatre) at Brooklyn Academy of Music

If I made it to heaven, I'd have to help out with the thunder. "Woyzeck" by Georg Buchner

So I wanted to visit friends in NYC and I decided to schedule it around the production of "Woyzeck" playing for one weekend at the BAM, because Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (not the comic book writer but the violinist behind the Dirty Three and a member of the Bad Seeds) had written original music for it.  I'd already seen Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform live within the past month, but I figured that this music was unlikely to be recorded any time soon and wanted to see how it would fit into the context of the play. 

First, a caveat: its been a while since I've read "Woyzeck", so I remember the broad plot and the fact that Buchner never finished the play before he died (or at least, there is no "finished" version of the play) and so different productions will rearrange the scenes in different orders.

For those of you unfamiliar with the play, Woyzeck is a poor soldier who supports his lover Marie by participating in strange medical experiments. Marie has an affair with the Drum Major in his unit and Woyzeck kills her over it.

The story sounds like it should be the basis for a Nick Cave song anyhow (like "Where the Wild Roses Grow"), so I figured it would be a good fit. And it was. The four or so songs that showed up in the piece were a brilliant mix of absurdity and emotion, whether an off-key Tin Pan Alley love song Woyzeck warbled for Marie (underlining his instability and insecurity) or the swaggering blues rock of the Drum Major's entrance (that has him bragging about being six foot seven in bare feet!), the songs made sense of a play that sits on the razor's edge between Dreiser and Beckett. And the cast had some good (or at least appropriate to the character and song) voices. The Drum Major (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) occasionally ventured into the territory of bad heavy metal vocalists, but otherwise could have been a (non-annoying) Broadway singer.

Unfortunately, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' music really only shows up in the first half.  And the show only clicks when everyone is singing. Because (oh god!) this play was directed by a pretentious European director with A (cough*bullshit*cough) CONCEPT.  There is nothing more dangerous in the world of theatre than a director with a bit of acclaim and A (cough*bullshit*cough) CONCEPT.

See, Gisli Orn Gardarsson decided to set his production of "Woyzeck" at a water factory that looks like a cross between playground equipment and the Nostromo in Alien. Oh, and there are also water tanks that the actors will swim in, like people would if they were making drinking water.  And a trapeze and a climbing rope, just like in all water factories. The design is well-executed, but I never felt that this set, even in the abstract, was a place where people worked. It was a cool-looking place that the actors could do circus tricks on.

You know, I am breaking my "No Snark" vow, but geez, High Concept directors must be stopped!

Moment of fairness: water is talked about a lot in "Woyzeck". But except for a bit of inconsistently altered dialogue (Herr Gardarsson also "adapted" the script), three vague lines in the director's notes and the water tanks to play in, there wasn't a sense that the water factory itself was that important to the world of the play that Herr Gardarsson conceived.  It could have been any factory or any physical labor site or even the army.  So perhaps someone could still do a water factory "Woyzeck" that would work, but it would at least have to use the concept to inform the actual play.

Unfortunately, there were no performances that suggested even that charitable view. Every character spoke/shout (in English) in the exact same inflection. In all fairness, I'm not sure if it was the fault of acting in the performers' non-native language or a directorial choice, but I will say that when they sang, the performers seemed to use the proper kind of phrasing you would expect from an American pop song. I was sitting in the balcony, so I might have missed some physical subtlety, except the default setting for physicality was clumsy slapstick. Woyzeck (Ingvar E. Sigurdson) pissed on the Doctor's face (Harpa Arnarsdottir), the Captain (Vikingur Kristjansson) tried to rape the Doctor, etc. (In retrospect, a lot of brutality was visited on the Doctor, played by a woman, in a way that is not borne out by the play. It had no place in the play and it added undertones of misogyny where none existed before.) "Woyzeck" is not a comedy, but if it must be, it shouldn't feel like one of those sub-Three Stooges comedies that PRC films cranked out by the dozens in the 1940s.

These are just the major issues that struck me during the play. It is hard to believe that this company performed a critically acclaimed Romeo and Juliet at the RSC and in New York!

The one thing I will give this awful production is that it illuminated a religious side of "Woyzeck".  The frequent references to water, the Captain's bourgeois discussion of morality, Woyzeck's disbelief that sin should leave no mark on Marie's face, and the quote that starts this post seemed increasingly significant in this tonally dissonant piece where finding a director's meaning was like reading a hack detective novel missing half the pages. I thought that "Woyzeck" focused on the dehumanizing ways of the modern world in the manner of Georg Kaiser or Arthur Schniztler. But in my state of alienation, it seemed to represent the dehumanization of the poor in a world where bourgeois conceptions of religion consider morality to rely on money.  Thus the Captain can say Woyzeck is good but not "moral", the Doctor can conduct cruel and manipulative experiments on him, and the Drum Major can take his wife with no consequences. Woyzeck is without friends to help him (Andres is merely a gossip, Marie is his betrayer, the other men watched the Drum Major beat him without helping) and there is no chaplain or priest to offer comfort. As such, he can only commit a brutal murder against the one person less powerful than him. 

I'd need to read the play again to verify if this could be a valid interpretation. But other than Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' compositions, it was the one interesting thing I took from the evening.


Zev Valancy said...

That was a really sharp review. I've never read or seen Woyzeck, but I think it's okay that I didn't make the effort to see this one. I want to see you write more about the shows you see--you have a strong eye both for the theoretical underpinnings and the actual theatrical experience.

Anonymous said...