"Woyzeck": Socioeconomic Theory, the Musical

Written in 1836-7, Woyzeck occupies a fascinating place in theater history. German playwright Georg Büchner died at the age of 23, before completing it. Though its story is clear — Woyzeck, a troubled soldier, kills his girlfriend, Marie, when he discovers she's been cheating on him with his army's drum major — Büchner left behind only a collection of scenes, which different translators and adaptors have arranged in different orders.

The play is also remarkable for what lies within those fragments. Woyzeck is the first drama in Western theater to take seriously the exploitation of the working man. Some lines anticipate Marx and later social theories about the poor: "Us common people, we don't have virtue," Woyzeck says to his captain in the opening scene. "We act like nature tells us. But if I was a gentleman, and had a hat and a watch and an overcoat, I guess I'd be virtuous too. But I'm just a poor fella." Nihilistic lines like "God's gone. Everything's gone" prefigure the bleakness of 20th-century postwar philosophy and art. But no matter which modern ideas the play is said to herald, there is universal agreement that to have written Woyzeck when he did, Büchner must have been a clairvoyant, a genius, or both.

The musical adaptation running at Shotgun Players elides many of these nuances. Originally conceptualized by Robert Wilson, a pioneer of the American theatrical avant garde, and with music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, this version resembles Büchner's masterpiece less than a good old-fashioned tale of betrayal, revenge, and madness. That doesn't mean the production, under the direction of Mark Jackson, isn't worthwhile — just that it might be a different show than its namesake.

Alex Crowther and Madeline H.D. Brown in Woyzeck. (Not pictured: Tom Waits' music.)
Jessica Palopoli
Alex Crowther and Madeline H.D. Brown in Woyzeck. (Not pictured: Tom Waits' music.)

Woyzeck's chief oppressors are originally his captain (Anthony Nemirovsky) and a doctor (Kevin Clarke), obtuse caricatures of evil power whose fickle words render Woyzeck (Alex Crowther), variously, a good man, a man without morals, and a biological "phenomenon." But here, the captain and doctor remain mere caricatures, the former a sugar-chasing simpleton, the latter a bug-eyed mad scientist. The doctor as written is paying Woyzeck to be a guinea pig in his experiment to see if eating only peas affects ... pee. But this production never clarifies that relationship, or many others. Karl (Andy Alabran), a gentle village idiot, is never introduced, even as out of nowhere he cradles Woyzeck and Marie's infant.

Marie (Madeline H.D. Brown) and Woyzeck's relationship, on the other hand, is astoundingly lucid, thanks to the actors' finely drawn performances. Neither fully engages with his or her surroundings. Crowther's Woyzeck, who says things like, "Don't you hear that terrible noise in the sky? Over the city it's all in flames! Don't look back!" casts his eyes always into the beyond; his periodic moments of clarity startle and wrack him as fiercely as his nightmarish visions. Powerless wife Marie, by contrast, distances herself, saying as she plunges into an affair, "Everything goes to hell, anyway," with chilling Brechtian calm.

Waits and Brennan's songs, which range from hard rock to more traditional musical theater ballads to grotesque circus music, help fill the gaps in Ann-Christin Rommen and Wolfgang Wiens's adaptation. "Coney Island Baby," Woyzeck's eulogy for a lost love, becomes a potent weapon when sung by the drum major (Joe Estlack); "All the World Is Green" offers glimmers of the man Woyzeck once was. As singers, the ensemble members show quality musicianship: Beth Wilmurt's Margaret, a narrator, blends her voice with the live clarinet as if the two were the same instrument; Crowther sings "I fell into the ocean when you became my wife," with a voice so tremulous it could have been submerged in icy waters.

The clearest illustration of Woyzeck's position as an oppressed proletariat comes from Nina Ball's set design, which, through the use of bold diagonals, makes the family's already tiny, dingy kitchen feel pushed in from all sides. In other aspects of this production, Woyzeck is less a clearly defined part of a social order than just a man who, once cuckolded, can no longer fight his battle against insanity. But that still makes for great drama.

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