Saturday, December 19, 2009

Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium's "Woyzeck"

Last year Christopher Windom, now a third-year MFA candidate in directing at the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium, staged a powerful production of The Tempest at the Pell Chaffee Theatre. That show was about growing up and growing old; its characters left behind the realm of desire—a hermetic, if comfortable, place—to join the world of experience. Windom returns this year with Georg B├╝chner’s 19th-century proto-naturalistic Woyzeck; its cruel determinism would be enough to send Miranda back to her father and Ariel back into spritely servitude. Two more different plays would be hard to imagine. But if Windom’s range is admirable, his accuracy is imperfect. While The Tempest was a great swirl of language, movement, and music, his Woyzeck is strangely inert. Aiming, I think, for a kind of pointed social commentary, Windom has just missed his mark—the play is an elusive target—and presents instead an amusing but toothless satire.

Woyzeck is a study in degradation; its voice is, sometimes maddeningly, the passive. Franz Woyzeck, a low-ranking soldier in the army, is being cheated on by his wife, experimented on by his doctor, bossed around by his superiors, and pissed on by his peers. He hears voices in his head and has apocalyptic visions. And in this version, which is set in America after World War II, he has the most damning affliction of them all: he is black. All of this amounts to a lot for the audience to take in; the unarticulated wave of abuses visited on Woyzeck swamps us, too. When Windom tries to differentiate among Woyzeck’s torturers, as he must to give the show texture and substance, he resorts to caricature rather than nuance.

Caricature, despite its boardwalk connotations, is not necessarily a clumsy or anti-dramatic technique; it can be used skillfully to represent the extreme range of characters’ subjective experiences. Here, however, it depicts only the director’s biases. In Woyzeck, the doctor, known as The Doctor, is manic and self-infatuated; the army captain, called The Captain, bloviates tirelessly in reflective sunglasses; Woyzeck’s wife’s lover, the Drum Major, is gigantic without being threatening; and Woyzeck’s peers are lecherous hicks. These exaggerations tell us more about Windom’s sense of stagecraft than Woyzeck’s sense of terror. In this Woyzeck, the forces that loom over Woyzeck are laughable—The Doctor is a klutz, The Captain a self-parody—so his desperate response to them is inexplicable. His dread, obviated by Windom’s goofy representations of his oppressors, is preposterous. By revealing these authorities as frauds—by shining a light through the veil of power—Windom reduces Woyzeck to a comic punchline: only a rube would let himself be dominated by such transparent impostors. For the play to be tragic, power must remain opaque. We must be able to see both the banal ferocity and inscrutable fakery of the society that crushes Woyzeck. Caricature is an apt tool for this task if it is used ironically to depict Woyzeck’s distorted perspective; as it is, his mounting madness has no traction. He is reacting to characters that exist only as semaphore from director to audience.

Will Shaw, who plays the hapless Woyzeck, does his best, but he seems to be in a different play than the actors around him. He has a rich, stentorian voice that is a good match for his feelings of estrangement and doom, though it does not seem to be the voice of someone beaten by authority: it is sometimes prophetic, but it is never persecuted. Shaw’s physical mannerisms are reactive. His default posture is a sort of electro-shocked tautness, his face pulled back in a wide-eyed grimace, his arms stiff down to his fingertips. Shaw has improved immeasurably in his time in the Consortium—he is not only more confident onstage, he is also more compelling—but we still get the sense, when watching him, of an actor hard at work. Rebecca Gibel as his wife, Marie, is tender and troubled; she defends Woyzeck in public but betrays him privately. It’s a wonderful and challenging role, and Gibel revels in drawing out its unresolved ambivalence. Karl Gregory, whose sustained and controlled hysteria as the self-justifying writer Heiner Muller in Charles Mees’s Full Circle was one of the real pleasures of last year’s theater season, is hysterical again here as The Doctor. He has the unfortunate condition of being extremely likeable onstage; projecting menace will, one suspects, be an enduring difficulty for him. But his natural charm and physical fluidity, when soundly harnessed to subsumed sinister intentions, will make his evil that much more grotesque. He need only look to Patrick Mulryan’s performance as the amber-voiced Nazi Youth from Trinity Rep’s recent Cabaret for an example of dewy duplicity. In Woyzeck, Mulryan plays The Captain, whose gnomic pronouncements on virtue, issued in a clipped bark, both puzzle and diminish Woyzeck. Mulryan is enjoyable in the role, but his characterization seems twice removed from its source: it is a play on a parody.

At least he appears to be having fun in a production that feels cautious, even dutiful. Windom, I think, is still searching for meaning in the play. It was his directorial confidence that buoyed The Tempest last year and that was missing in the performance of Woyzeck that I saw last week. His choices feel explanatory, as though compensating for the show’s difficulty. One wants to encourage him, to say, there is nothing to explain; just a story to unfold.

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