When the young Georg Buchner died in 1837, he left behind his unfinished working class tragedy Woyzeck, which was inspired by the real-life story of convicted criminal J.C. Woyzeck, a soldier who had become unemployed, homeless and hallucinatory. Before being sentenced to death for the murder of his lover, the medical examiner dismissed Woyzeck's mental illness as mere social deviancy.
Buchner’s play was revolutionary in that it sympathized with the miserable life of a common soldier – whose existence in the Prussian army was akin to slavery – and sought to demonstrate how this systematic, brutal exploitation could help destroy a man’s psyche.
Unfortunately, a systematic, ham-fisted acting style destroys the Woyzeck currently running at St. Ann’s Warehouse and only makes the play’s didacticism harder to sit through. Billed with great fanfare as a “high-octane, rock and roll” production, this Woyzeck was a critical darling in London, where it premiered in 2004 in a much smaller space than the capacious DUMBO warehouse.
The story, as assembled by director Daniel Kramer, follows Woyzeck (Edward Hogg), the poor, overworked grunt, as he rushes to fulfill his seemingly endless obligations as assistant to the army captain, medical guinea pig, firewood gatherer and all around underpaid peon. His one ray of light is his lover Marie (Myriam Acharki), who falls prey to the alpha-male charisma of the strapping Drum Major (David Harewood). The knowledge of their affair proves too much for the anemic Woyzeck to bear, and his already fragile psyche shatters, leaving Marie dead from his many, many stab wounds.
Although the octane is indeed high during the interludes between scenes, when Woyzeck races frantically from job to job to the tunes of Presley and Parton, the show's engine sputters as soon as the rock and roll stops and the over-acting begins.
The army Doctor (Tony Guilfoyle) and Captain (Fred Pearson), in particular, are reduced to caricatures by grandiloquence of the highest order, in the much-lampooned British stage tradition of loud, broad and ENUNCIATED. Since the skilled cast is clearly capable of modulating a performance to a director’s whims, I can only suppose that this over-the-top style was a deliberate choice by Daniel Kramer. As such, the conceit achieves nothing but a grinding tedium; the performances are too broad to be funny as parody or compelling as tragedy.
Edward Hogg, as Woyzeck, is riveting during the first scene, when his haunted manner seems to suggest a barely contained inner tempest. But for the next two (plus) hours, he unravels in a nervous breakdown that worked this audience member to exhaustion. Like the other members of the ensemble, any empathy we might feel for his character is finally deflected by a great gnashing of teeth. In fact, the production’s most noteworthy feat is the sheer amount of scenery-chewing achieved on such a sparsely decorated stage.
Which brings us to the one great redeeming virtue of the evening’s 140 intermission-less minutes: From a design standpoint, Woyzeck is absolutely stunning. (Neil Irish did the set and costumes; David Howe designed the lighting.) A rich autumnal desolation, suggestive of Woyzeck’s isolated inner-landscape, is evoked by vivid lighting and just a few symbolic set pieces: a huge clock, a cross, a line of trees, fallen leaves, a window frame, a jukebox. And then there’s St. Ann’s cavernous empty space, which is used to full effect when the cartoonish performances occasionally yield to a visually arresting stillness.
One such moment occurs near the end, when Woyzeck slowly pedals his ridiculous tricycle all the way to the back of the massive warehouse with Marie standing behind him on the back, holding his shoulders. There is a rich silence as they linger there, and the audience is free to savor the chilling dichotomy between the vast space separating us and the sudden intimacy of their performance. It’s just too bad that such sublime moments are the exception, not the norm, in this overwrought production.
Woyzeck runs through December 3rd at St. Ann’s Warehouse, located at 38 Water St., Brooklyn. There will be a post-performance panel discussion at 5 p.m. today featuring Daniel Kramer and two other directors: Alex Timbers (Les Freres Corbusier) and Grzegorz Jarzyna (TR Warszawa).