nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
October 15, 2008
Georg Büchner did not live to see his 195th birthday on Friday, October 17, 2008. He died, in fact, tragically young in 1837, four months into his 23rd year. I'm sure he was not thrilled about this, but being a Libra, whose zodiacal emblem is the golden scales (suggesting balance, contradiction, ambivalence, paradox, etc.), I'm sure he would also not be thrilled to see that his pitch-black point of view has even more relevance today than he might have imagined. Those Libran scales—sometimes depicted as being held by a blindfolded Venus—are also symbols of Justice, a concept egregiously absent from Büchner's view of the world. Yet such a preoccupation with the absence of Justice—or with the inexistence of God—inevitably belies the unthought knowledge that life must somehow be meaningful. Or why else write a play?
"The flood of the Revolution can toss up our bodies wherever it likes, but they'll still be able to pick up our fossilized bones and smash in the heads of kings with them." That's a strangely hopeful quote from Büchner's nihilistic first play, Danton's Death, and I think it's an excellent lens through which to view each new staging of his work. So I went to see Woyzeck at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as adapted and directed by Gísli Örn Gardarsson and performed by his Icelandic theatre troupe, Vesturport, hoping it might metaphorically— or literally—bludgeon a few kings (or world leaders for whom democracy and monarchy are virtually indistinguishable).
Well, I'd like to say at the very least that a good concussion was had by all those who deserved it. But I don't believe that's the case. Vesturport's take on Büchner's unfinished masterpiece—the scenes were in various stages of revision and not left in any particular order—speaks very little to our current state of affairs, reveals very little about the human condition. In fact, the story of Woyzeck—a good man becoming unhinged; a poor soldier who, for a few extra groschen, makes himself a guinea pig to science; a guileless fellow whose sole joy is his paramour, the beautiful Marie, a reputed tramp who cannot resist the ultra-testosteronous wooing of the visiting Drum Major, a betrayal which, along with the apocalyptic messages Woyzeck seems to be divining from the earth and the sky, causes him to murder Marie and so in essence murder the only bit of true meaning in his life—I found, in this telling at least, to be so abstracted that it seemed to have no sense of gravity at all.
Indeed, performers spend much of the time swinging from a trapeze, spinning on a rope, surging through a swimming pool. These tricks do not illuminate the play, but they are delightful and make for a swift, jolly 90 minutes. There is some pathos to be had, particularly in the vampiric score by Nick Cave (music & lyrics) and Warren Ellis (music), which surrounds the proceedings with a mirthful menace. The Drum Major's introductory song is nothing short of a shot of adrenaline as performed by the ravishingly sexy Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, who has the audience tied around his not-so-little finger for the entire time he is on-stage. Equally engaging is the intrepid Ingvar E. Sigurdsson, whose Woyzeck is truly, as another character observes, "running through the world like an open razor," but constantly and helplessly only cutting himself.
So Vesturport's Woyzeck is indisputably an interesting and worthwhile theatrical experience—much less can be said for numerous current offerings. But there is something in the text that is genuinely subversive, beguiling, and dangerous that has inspired generations of theatre-makers. Honestly, I've not seen a production of Woyzeck that has really hit the mark. Perhaps the play itself doesn't need to be performed all that much anymore. Perhaps instead of reassembling its skeleton we should just take a rib and make something new. Or perhaps we should take a femur and really go after those kings. Something has to be done.