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An Antihero Ahead of His Time


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Court Theatre

I'm a 20th-century man but I don't want to be here. --Ray Davies.

You've heard of the "Do-It-Yourself Messiah," where music lovers get to produce their own version of Handel's classic oratorio. Well, Georg Buchner's Woyzeck is a sort of do-it-yourself hell. The story of a simple man's decline into madness and murder, it was left in pieces when Buchner died of typhus 150 years ago, at the age of 23. And yet those pieces were entirely too great, entirely too intriguing to be left alone. So scholars and directors mess with them from time to time--devising new translations of Buchner's German, new decipherings of his longhand, new structurings of his four extant drafts. Even going so far as to fill in the denouement Buchner never had time to write. Trying, in short, to produce their own versions of a classic nightmare. Their own anti-Messiah.

The effort's not always successful, but it's definitely worthwhile. Woyzeck's a bona fide masterpiece. Incredibly important, not least of all because of its influence on subsequent playwrights--like Bertolt Brecht, 50 years younger than the play, whose literary adolescence coincided with a Weimar-era Buchner revival, promoted by the German left. Brecht's alienation effects are prefigured in Buchner's use of songs and folktales, his unsentimental characterizations, his episodic scenes, his way of bouncing bits of farce through the most tragic passages. Brecht's political intentions are prefigured, too, in Buchner's attempt to force us to see past individual suffering to the social structure--the class machinery--that perpetuates it. From melodrama to analysis.

All kinds of things get prefigured. Just as William Blake prophesied the ugliness of the 20th-century industrial landscape, Buchner prophesies the anomie of the 20th-century industrial soul. Franz Woyzeck's the prototypical urban ghost--an odd cross between Galy Gay and Ernest Borgnine's Marty; a shell-shocked Stanley Kowalski; James Dean without the sports car or the crooked smile, running through life "like an open razor." Caught in the pecking order and just self-conscious enough to feel the pain without recognizing its source, soldier Woyzeck ricochets between the condescensions of his intensely stupid superior officer, the manipulations of a doctor who's experimenting on him, and the passionate deceptions of his common-law wife. When he finally explodes, pecking orders being what they are, he leaves the bosses alone and takes the poor woman down with him.

It's the modern story, in other words. And Woyzeck's a stunningly modern play. Postmodern, actually: naturally scrambled, this is one classic that deconstructs itself.

Nicholas Rudall, of course, is more interested in reassembly than deconstruction. In his translation and adaptation of Woyzeck, as well as in his direction of it, he tries to restore the play to an order it never possessed. And for the most part, does a remarkable job. The scenes flow well, accumulating force as they go, digging Woyzeck in deeper and deeper. The language is harsh, simple, and clear--perfectly suited to Buchner's magnificently foul images of the sun coming out of the clouds "like emptying a bed pan"; or of weather so "clear, gray, hard" that "you could hammer a peg into it and hang yourself from the sky." Rudall's script finds the anger, the poetry, speed, and young man's audacity in Buchner's lines.

But then he loses it. Suddenly, at precisely the point where Buchner left off. Without a model for the final moments of the play, Rudall resorts first to artiness--offering a series of overlapping lines reprised from other parts of the play--and then to sentimental pleading on Woyzeck's behalf. Neither strategy jibes with anything that's gone before. Neither strategy works. The pleading, in particular--which comes close to canonizing a man who, after all, committed murder--reads, embarrassingly, like the director's last, panicky attempt to dispense with all those pesky ambiguities he's been dealing with and tell us what he thinks we should've been thinking all along.

Fortunately, Rudall's last 5 minutes can't negate the rough grandeur of his first 75. This production is better, freer, stronger, more human than any I can remember seeing at the Court Theatre since Michael Maggio directed Rudall and Frank Galati in Endgame. And that was nearly five years ago. Linda Emond is really amazingly good as Woyzeck's pseudowife, Marie. Her fierceness and sexuality, her susceptibility and despair are almost alarmingly vivid. So much so that she dominates the early portions of the play, in which she appears more often.

I'm used to thinking of John Reeger as a musical comedy actor, and therefore expected to be disappointed in his Woyzeck. Instead I was astonished. He plays Woyzeck with a simplicity and reserve that contradict the standard, violent reading. Reeger brings out not only the dreaminess and delusion of the character, but a slavish passivity--the result of his having perpetually to mollify his betters. It's fascinating.

William J. Norris works three sorts and sizes of tour de force in three roles, the biggest and best being his amusingly ruthless doctor. James Deuter's perfectly supercilious as Woyzeck's captain. And Jeff Bauer's set is excellent, giving a sense of great heaviness and age while allowing for lots of flexibility in staging.

It's a funny thing. The Court's supposed to be a theater for classics, which more often than not means the mainline classics of Western Civ: Shaw and Sheridan, Ibsen, Chekhov, and so on. But the most memorable productions I've seen there have all been from slightly off the mainline. Beckett, Pinter, and now Buchner. I wonder if it means anything. I bet it would be worth finding out if it means anything.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Keith Swinden.

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