nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 23, 2010
The question that any new adaptation of a classic work of theatre has to answer is: why? What is it about this group of artists' take on this material that makes it compelling and relevant to a new audience? Toy Box Theatre Company, I am happy to report, answers this question very satisfactorily in their new production of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, here adapted and directed by company co-founder/co-artistic director Jonathan Barsness. This is, largely, an exploration of a revered drama that reveals interesting things about the work and about the world we live in.
The play revolves around a young man, Frank Woyzeck; he's an earnest, ordinary fellow, but he's fighting against severe alienation because he's unable to find work and consequently can't support himself and his girlfriend, Marie, and their infant child, Christian. In Buchner's play, Woyzeck is a soldier; in Barsness's version, it's not clear what Woyzeck's job is/was, but the suggestion that he's a returned vet from the Iraqi War hung in the air, at least for me; I liked the ambiguity of this.
Woyzeck's story unfolds in a series of episodic scenes. We meet him first with his friend Andres, out and about early on a frosty morning to do some ice fishing together. (The play transpires entirely during a bitter winter.) Already something is amiss with Frank: he can't focus on the task of picking through the ice, and later he tells his buddy that he hears the voices of angels.
As the play continues, we see Frank with Marie; with the town's mayor, who is unable and/or unwilling to help Woyzeck find a job other than shoveling the snow in his driveway; and with a doctor who employs him as a kind of human guinea pig—in this scene we learn that Woyzeck's angels may well be the product of the experimental drugs he is taking to try to earn some money. Marie is seduced (or allows herself to be seduced) by a hunky fireman (identified only as The Stud in the program), and when Frank discovers that she suddenly has a pair of expensive earrings that she can't account for, he becomes suspicious. But the idea of Woyzeck is not simply that women are faithless; Frank is abandoned by everyone in this play: one would hope that simply being a human being would be sufficient cause to honor and care about this man, but this is not the case in the world of Woyzeck, as perhaps it is not in our world as well. Buchner, by way of Barsness, reminds us of our obligations to our fellow men and women with poignancy and urgency.
Once he discovers Marie's infidelity, Frank falls into a downward spiral (exacerbated, surely, by the doctor's drugs). The end is predictably tragic.
Barsness updates Buchner's characters and ideas admirably; my one quibble with his work as playwright here is that the play seems to take too long to end. As a director, he's realized his work well in a small and intimate space, using a limited number of set pieces (designed by Kacie Hultgren) and live music by Colonna Sonora, a three-person acoustic band who perform on one side of the playing area.
Woyzeck is extremely well-served by the presence of David Michael Holmes in the title role. Holmes, another co-founder/co-artistic director of Toy Box, inhabits this character beautifully and with strong physicality, showing us his ordinariness and his distinctiveness with eloquence. As Woyzeck deteriorates, Holmes seems to as well. It's a moving performance.
Others in the company who make strong contributions include Ron Bopst as the mayor (who adds a bit of needed comic relief in places as this fundamentally foolish individual), Juan Luis Acevedo as the domineering doctor, and Sarah Hankins as Margaret, Marie's friend.
I'm not generally a big fan of reimagining famous plays, but when such explorations succeed, they can make for worthwhile theatre. This is certainly the case with Toy Box Theatre Company's Woyzeck.