Scenes From the Death of Woyzeck | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Scenes From the Death of Woyzeck


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Red Dress Theatre Company

at the Greenview Arts Center

Scenes From the Death of Woyzeck is an academic exercise, which means it's intelligent and profound but addressed solely to those well versed in the material. If you're not already familiar with Woyzeck, George Buchner's 1836 masterpiece, then this brief 55-minute adaptation won't make much sense, for Scenes is an abstract, a distillation of Woyzeck. Anyone coming to it without some knowledge of the original will go away bewildered.

Created by faculty members from the theater department of Illinois State University--the department that produced many members of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company--Scenes would be better named Images, for it breaks Woyzeck down into a series of stark, compact, and mostly silent images. Almost all the dialogue has been stripped away, and what remains is delivered in snippets of three languages--French, German, and English. One of Buchner's innovations in Woyzeck was using dialogue primarily to reveal the emotions of his characters, not to promote a narrative, and the foreign sounds in this adaptation highlight that technique. Anger in German sounds like anger even if you don't understand the language. But this deemphasis of the verbal also intensifies the visual impact of the piece.

The opening scene, for example, barely a minute long, consists of a man--Woyzeck--lying face down on the stage. Slowly, unsteadily, he rises to his feet, and, like a stooped and beaten mugging victim, he gapes silently out toward the audience with a baffled, tortured look on his face. That's all there is to the scene, but brief as it is the image captures the tone of Buchner's play, which is possibly the first ever written about a hero totally devoid of status, power, or dignity.

Subsequent scenes show Woyzeck subjected to an unrelenting stream of abuse and humiliation. He is slapped around by the captain he shaves; he participates in an experiment that restricts his diet to nothing but peas; his common-law wife Marie sleeps with a handsome soldier.

His tormentors are made more fearsome and daunting by the masks they wear. The captain, for example, wears a mask that shows one eye bulging in a hideous stare, and the drum major, with his shoulders padded to amplify his bulk, wears a mask that makes him look feral and beastlike.

Woyzeck has an honored place in the history of the theater because Buchner anticipated by nearly a century the preoccupations of 20th-century playwrights. He shattered the traditional notion of plot, in which events move steadily toward a climax. Instead, he created scenes that stand more or less alone. When he died in 1836 at the age of 23 Woyzeck was a collection of scenes, and editors have ordered them in a variety of ways. But the order of the scenes doesn't matter too much because the play, like a poem, is primarily concerned with creating a mood, not telling a story.

And the mood Buchner was aiming for was distinctly modern. He not only created a protagonist with no stature or significance--an audacious act in itself--but also presented Woyzeck as the ultimate victim, a man for whom life is nothing but one damn thing after another.

By emphasizing so strongly this aspect of the play, Scenes From the Death of Woyzeck at times verges on comedy. This poor guy is whacked, slapped, and humiliated so many times that he starts to look like a precursor of Charlie Chaplin.

But the academics who put this piece together under the name of the Red Dress Theatre Company short-circuit any unintentional comedy with a stunning scene that portrays, with florid, Kabuki-like intensity, Woyzeck's murder of Marie. This scene, which culminates with Woyzeck materializing like an apparition with Marie's limp, naked body in his arms, is breathtaking and wonderfully theatrical--a scene that banishes any trace of humor from Woyzeck's awful existence.

Scenes was created by ISU faculty members Nancy Benjamin, Patrick O'Gara, Cal Pritner, and John Sipes, who began by improvising with masks. They obviously lavished time and energy on this piece, for every movement in it looks carefully considered and rehearsed. As Woyzeck, Sipes sags and grimaces like a man in pain, his self-respect ground into dust. Benjamin plays Marie as a fearful, wide-eyed victim of Woyzeck as well as his victimizer--a woman willing to betray him for a bit of flattery and admiration from a soldier. And Andrew Biel, who has taken over for Cal Pritner, fills all the other roles, often performing under masks that obscure his vision. (On opening night, he drifted too close to the edge of the platform stage and slipped off but he landed on his feet and continued walking as though the mishap was a well-rehearsed acrobatic display.)

Woyzeck is a play worthy of intense examination, and these faculty members have done precisely that in creating their adaptation. But Scenes From the Death of Woyzeck is only for those who share their curiosity about this play--and their extensive knowledge of it.

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