nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
August 15, 2009
The Los Angeles-based Gangbusters Theatre Company's 2009 FringeNYC production of Georg Buchner's hallucinatory tragedy Woyzeck is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a swift, fittingly brutal attack on the ill-fated German playwright/scientist's tale (based on a true event involving a poor soldier, driven mad by the medical experiments in which he was participating in order to bring in extra income for his prostitute paramour and their newborn baby), and, though some of the finer points are handled sloppily, the evening as a whole still manages to acquit itself well in the face of a canonized theatrical classic.
Woyzeck presents a number of challenges to any of its potential producers. Its only extant manuscript was unfinished (Buchner died of typhus before completing it), and its scenes were left in a questionable order, to say nothing of the stylistic difficulties it leaves to its performers. The key to performing Woyzeck lies somewhere in the same nebulous arena as Brecht and the Greeks, with a touch of Grand Guignol, Shakespeare, and children's theatre thrown in, to boot. Buchner died at 23, and was by no means a playwriting prodigy—indeed, Woyzeck is not ashamed to function at times more as a sounding board for its author's philosophical ideas about the dangers of science, the military, and the subjugation of the poor than any sort of cathartic tragedy. So, it's by no means an easy piece.
Still, there can be no doubt of the play's importance and power, and I certainly came away from Gangbusters' production with a deeper appreciation for the script.
Christian Levatino plays the title role with an endearing, stammering feeble-mindedness that counteracts his strong physical presence, and adds an extra dimension to the tragedy (nudging it further down the road to a sort of Othello by way of Of Mice and Men).
Director Bob McDonald keeps the scenes flowing nicely, his script adaptation is sound, and the production team is uniformly (no pun intended towards the costumer) excellent. Special praise must also be given to the puppet designer, Collin Velkoff, whose "astronomical horse" and its biological functions will not be easily forgotten.
What was disappointing to me, then, was a general lack of discipline that overcame a fair amount of the more dialogue-heavy scenes. The sense I got from several actors was one of hesitant improvisation—a sort of mumbled, jumbled delivery that muddied the dialogue and sounded like people were either throwing lines and comments in where they didn't belong, or just paraphrasing the lines they had. However, it is here that I must disclaim: I saw their opening performance on a Saturday at noon, which is hardly the easiest time to perform a show you've been running for months, let alone a festival production that can often be by the seat of one's pants. So I've no doubt the production will improve as the run goes on.
Gangbusters' stated objective is to stage modern classics "with their original speed and violence." They certainly have met that goal admirably with Woyzeck, and given the company's history and acclaim, I hope they return to NYC with another production very soon. In his musical adaptation of Woyzeck, Tom Waits sings that "a good man in hard to find." So is a good classical theatre company—I'm glad the Fringe brought us Gangbusters.