Woyzeck on the Highveld | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Woyzeck on the Highveld

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Hailed as a cutting-edge combination of art and technology in its birthplace, this evocative if bleak South African production synthesizes puppet theater and film animation to tell the story of "a good murder, a genuine murder, a beautiful murder." A coproduction of the Johannesburg-based Handspring Puppet Company and Market Theatre Company, it's directed and designed by William Kentridge, whose script is adapted from Georg Buchner's unfinished 1837 tragedy Woyzeck. Buchner's play, based on a true crime, concerns a poor soldier who murders his common-law wife after discovering she's having an affair with a drum major, though Buchner eschewed the story's inherent sensationalism and focused on the social pressures contributing to his everyman protagonist's descent into madness. In Kentridge's version Woyzeck is a black mine worker, but the rest of Buchner's chilling critique of class inequities is left largely intact. This striking show features nearly human-scale rod puppets manipulated by (and sometimes interacting with) actors. The puppets' actions are remarkably believable despite their expressionistic, rough-hewn features; the interaction of Woyzeck, his doomed lover, and their child, for example, is touchingly delicate and ominous as the puppeteers' skill draws us into a world as real as any the theater can create. (Buchner's performing horse is replaced by a fully articulated puppet rhinoceros that rears up on its hind legs.) The onstage action is closely synchronized with projected images--charcoal cartoons that depict Woyzeck's deteriorating mental state through intricate use of symbols, including a bloody magnet that hangs over the landscape, pulling the characters toward their fates. This is grim stuff--stark, moody, and quietly relentless--that demands and rewards close attention. Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, 722-5463. Opens Thursday, September 15, 7:30 PM. Through September 17: Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM. $18-$26.

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

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