19 April 2002: Büchner, Woyzeck

University of Massachusetts Curtain Theatre. Adapted by Julian Olf after a translation by Gideon Lester; directed by Olf

Julian Olf’s style as a director is extremely clear and articulate. I still remember his UMass Theatre production of Genet’s The Maids and marveling at what good performances he got from his undergraduate actors. The same may be said of this production, which features an inspired use of mime and a frank, exuberant presentational format. At first it seemed almost perverse, and certainly gimmicky, to bring this style to bear on a proto-naturalist play of existential suffering and senseless murder. But then one is reminded of how broadly caricatured many of the roles are in the play: the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major (principally), who are all created as stereotypical satires on such persons, and who function in Büchner’s Gestalt as metonymic symbols of a dead world, a world of dehumanized figures going through motions incessant and purposeless. In this world the thirty-year-old Franz Woyzeck finds himself a military servant, a toady, a slave, oppressed at every turn. His common-law wife, Marie, and he have produced a bastard child that seems surely to have no future — anymore than does Woyzeck himself. Precipitated into helpless rage by Marie’s adultery with the Drum Major, he purchases a knife (because he cannot afford a gun) and kills her. Büchner found the source material of the play in a volume in his father’s library, an account by a physician of his long interrogation of the historical Woyzeck. Out of that material he made a play extraordinarily prescient of the dehumanization of society that has continued to occur even as the twenty-first century begins, almost two hundred years after Büchner wrote his play — and left it unfinished, in shambles, at his premature death.

Unlikely material for treatment by a mime troop, doubling the roles (one actor, for instance, plays the Captain, the Showman, and the Peddler; another — a tall, superb physical specimen — plays the Drum Major and Doctor) and employing two assisting performers called “Utility Actor” in the dramatis personae. They all wear plain grey skin-tight body suits, over which they drape brightly-colored costume elements made mostly of felt. Their faces are made up in white-face “masks” achieved by drawing a broad black line around the facial features and filling in the face with white, then adding some eye makeup and bright red-vermilion lip rouge for Marie. The costumes are hung at the extremities of the stage, along the metal staircases that allow audiences to descend into this “black box” space called, with some wit, “The Curtain” (after the Elizabethan original).

There is an opening parade, in time-honored fairgrounds fashion, the performers cavorting and hand-standing their way around the almost minuscule squared-off performance space, with audience on all four sides. They maintain, when “off,” nearly expressionless features unless they are called upon to be part of the crowd or otherwise part of the ongoing fiction. When “on,” they are mimes who suddenly and tumultuously come to verbal life, as if suddenly taking on an authentic, frenetic three-dimensional reality by stepping out of a twopence-colored broadsheet.

The Woyzeck, superbly well played by Andrew Fitzgerald, is the epitome of nervous energy, never still, pacing compulsively around the Captain while shaving him, and in later sequences circling the entire (if limited) stage, his outside leg drawn up higher than the inside, in repetitive, almost limping, fashion. As other characters — the Doctor, the Captain — speak their taunting lines, Woyzeck repeats them, fragmentarily, muttering them under his breath compulsively, as if he is chained to them, however desperately he attempts to break free of their influence. Before we know it, despite the impersonality of the mime tradition, we are caught up in his plight and emotionally at one with his struggle for survival in a terrible world in which things just go “on and on” (Woyzeck’s own phrase for the senseless advance of time and life). The story, told near the end, of the poor little child that had no father or mother and discovered at length what a baneful existence human life really was captures Büchner’s bleak outlook, part social criticism, part existential despair. As a dramatic element in the play it is a summing up in general, in theory, of the root nature of a world in which Woyzeck’s murder of Marie reads, not only or simply as a brutal homicide, but as an existential act of protest, absurd on the face of it, yet compelled by a sort of necessity all its own.

This bleak view of the human predicament is what is so clearly, in Julian Olf’s production, characterized by a truly accomplished set of performances by a beautifully disciplined troupe of actors whose discipline has itself been the means to full performative freedom. A fine, very satisfying, and engrossing evening — all of this, by the way, accomplished in a headlong rush lasting exactly an hour and a quarter. As one leaves the theatre, one realizes a hope that this fine company of mimes will return again with their version of some other classic — King Lear? No Exit? Measure for Measure? The possibilities seem endless.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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