Unhappy Ending

In this tragedy, humanity is drowned in a sea of artifice

Of all the ways that a person might choose to kill himself, suicide by drowning has to be one of the strangest. Few people take their lives in this way. The idea of filling one's pockets with stones and walking into a river (as the writer Virginia Woolf did in 1941), or throwing oneself into a "weeping brook" like Hamlet's Ophelia, seems unnatural to the extreme. It's one thing to end it all quickly with a bullet to the temple or gently with a soak in a hot tub and a razor to the wrist, but a watery death is quite another — it's hard to imagine a more painful and inhuman way to go.

The perversity of suicide by drowning is perhaps what attracts so many playwrights and directors to killing off the title character in Georg Büchner's 1837 drama Woyzeck in this way. Büchner's own premature death as a result of typhus at the age of 23 left the manuscript for his menacing play about the limits of human degradation incomplete, with the protagonist throwing the bloody knife he used in a previous scene to slay his lover, Marie, into a pond. Since the work received its first production in 1913, adapters have come up with a variety of different endings, from leaving Woyzeck standing in the pond, to having him return to the town to embrace his son (the illegitimate product of his relationship with the deceased Marie.)

But by far the most popular way of bringing Woyzeck to a close is to show the protagonist wading out in pursuit of the murder weapon and a watery grave. This ending makes perfect sense when you think about the plot. During the course of the drama, we watch a poor soldier gradually succumb to his basest animal instincts. Even at the start, he's already pretty low in the pecking order, scratching out an existence doing menial tasks for the local army captain and allowing a doctor to use him in medical experiments. (The doctor even puts Woyzeck on a pea-only diet in the name of science.) When Marie shuns Woyzeck for a handsome military official, the physically and mentally depleted protagonist is driven to murder. Despite the highly fragmented nature of the play, concluding the drama with Woyzeck drowning can be very powerful. After all, this most inhuman form of suicide is fitting for a character reduced by the end of the play to an inhuman state.

David Sinaiko (as the Captain) and Chad Deverman (as Woyzeck) in a scene from the play.
Rob Melrose
David Sinaiko (as the Captain) and Chad Deverman (as Woyzeck) in a scene from the play.

Details

Through April 7
Tickets are $15-25; call 419-3584 or visit www.cuttingball.com.
Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St. (at Eddy) S.F.

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Following in the footsteps of such seminal adaptations of the drama as Werner Herzog's 1979 film starring Klaus Kinski and Alban Berg's 1925 opera Wozzeck, a new production by the Cutting Ball theater company also depicts the protagonist ending it all Lady of the Lake-style. By exploiting the high artifice of early 20th-century German Expressionism as a basis for the mise-en-scène, the Cutting Ball's production places heavy emphasis on all that is artificial and inhuman in the play. As such, translator Rob Melrose's decision to append his script with a drowning scene should resonate deeply with Büchner's dark exploration of the outer limits of humanity. But, like much of the rest of the swift, 70-minute-long, woebegone journey that precedes these final moments, the protagonist's death throes don't quite flow.

"I wanted to tell about every aspect of this man being stripped away and oppressed, and what happens to him," director Adriana Baer told San Francisco Arts Monthly in a recent article about her version of the play. Alongside the sparse, uniform lines of Melrose's compact adaptation, Baer's staging certainly works hard to strip all signs of humanity from Woyzeck. This effect is predominantly achieved through the production's Expressionistic aesthetic, which is smeared on as thick and unevenly as the white pancake makeup on a silent movie star's face.

Some of the staging effects, most obviously Melpomene Katakalos' set, are visually potent. The scenic designer's completely white, labyrinthine system of compartmentalized shelves stuffed with everyday objects like the corner of a well-stocked thrift store suggests the surreal, monochrome palette of 1920s German films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Members of the cast first appear behind the shelves with heavily made-up white faces, black eyes, and red lips, setting the phantasmagoric tone. The radioactive hues of Melrose's lighting scheme continue in the same vein.

The high artifice of the production works less well when it comes to the performances. Two contrasting acting styles seem to offset each other in the production — psychological naturalism for the leading role and physical stylization for the rest of the cast. Drawing a distinction between Woyzeck and the other characters has the potential to make a strong statement about one human being's fate at the hands of an inhuman society. But most of the ensemble members don't push the physicality far enough. And those who do, such as the doctor (Ryan Oden) and David Sinaiko's Captain, go too far. While Sinaiko monotonously barks and blusters his way through his role, Oden, who, for no clear reason, carries a long stick, bewilders us with its manifold uses. At one moment the prop is a piece of scientific equipment, at another, an intimidation device. Mostly, it's just distracting. Only Rebecca Martin, in her brief but muscular turn as a fairground horse, seems fully in control.

Chad Deverman, meanwhile, appears to be channeling every Hollywood romantic lead from James Dean to Tom Cruise in his personification of Büchner's anti-hero. Impossibly fresh-faced and handsome with a penchant for staring intently into middle distance as Russell Crowe might from the bow of a ship, Deverman looks no more beaten-down by the end of the drama than he does at the beginning. Far from being "stripped away and oppressed," this Woyzeck is almost superhuman. The constant presence of sound and music designer Cliff Caruthers' "mood-enhancing" backing tracks only serve to heighten the contrivances of the acting. Deverman doesn't perform his role like the other actors in the play, but the portrayal of his character is no less synthetic in its own way.

The problem with all this artificiality is that it leaves no room for even the smallest glimpse of humanity. If we are to understand what it is that drives Woyzeck to commit suicide in such a difficult, unnatural way, we must see Büchner's protagonist first and foremost as a human being. Only then can we begin to understand his demise. In Herzog's film it's precisely because of the increasing haggardness in Kinski's face and the tightness in his body that his watery suicide rings true. His is a profoundly desperate performance — a true, "poor, bare-forked animal" — whose only recourse is to follow that knife to the murky depths.

In the Cutting Ball's boldly erratic production, the nearest we get to the world of flesh and blood is a two-minute scene involving an actor pretending to be a horse. The dehumanized suicide — rendered all the more stylized through the use of mime — fits the dehumanized character. But the integrity of Büchner's apocalyptic vision of humanity sinks hopelessly out of sight.

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