“Woyzeck” may be the theater’s greatest blank slate. German scribe Georg Buchner died before finishing his 1837 play about a soldier who goes mad, murders the mother of his child and then kills himself. He left only a collection of scenes with no definite order, which means directors are free to mold the play to their wills. In the case of Daniel Kramer, whose production transfers to St. Ann’s Warehouse from London’s Gate Theater, the result has vicious beauty.
Kramer, who also adapted the script, creates a world that can swallow a man whole. From its first image of two soldiers trying to ride through the forest on a single tricycle, the show distorts proportions. Settings and people seem either larger or more grotesque than Woyzeck (Edward Hogg), which allows the director to comment on the warped power of poverty, war, science and infidelity. All of these things, we’re told, drive Woyzeck to his crimes.
Working in perfect sync with his designers and cast, Kramer creates his freak show from gestures that thwart logic but make visceral sense. Even at its cruelest, the staging’s wild imagination is exciting.
Take Woyzeck’s peas. To raise extra money for his girlfriend and baby, the soldier enrolls in a medical experiment in which he can eat only raw peas for 30 days. Every time he chews, the noise is magnified into a loud echo, like he’s crunching in an empty cave. With a single sound cue, the natural act of eating becomes lonely and strange.
Other resonant touches include David Howe’s lighting, which is often diffused through smoke to seem eerie and hard, and a clock hung by set designer Neil Irish from the ceiling. The clock controls the bell that tells soldiers when to assemble, but it doesn’t have any hands. If he can’t know what time it is, then Woyzeck is helpless to predict when his leaders will summon him. It’s a constant reminder he has no control.
In the production’s most elaborate moments, Kramer shows a flair for composition, employing the entire depth and height of St. Ann’s cavernous space. When Woyzeck attends his captain, handing him a new napkin every time he wipes his mouth, we see the assembly line necessary for that luxury: A row of peasants wash and fold, passing down each white cloth with mechanical precision. Meanwhile, a soldier dressed in a ridiculous headpiece whips them to go faster, while another soldier does push-ups in the background.
And there among the massive trees visible at the rear of the set — trees without branches or roots, hanging in the air like wooden corpses — a circus ringmaster pushes a cart full of white balloons. And, oh yes, these actions are performed to a recording of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Sometimes, the ensemble even moves in time to the music.
The experience is as unsettling as it is funny. Those festive balloons are a statement on the pure white napkins prepared by beaten slaves. The exercising soldier is the opposite of his lazy captain, and Dolly’s hymn to the working class is now a totalitarian anthem. Kramer controls the rhythm of this sensory assault so that each section makes an impact before the entire experience comes at us at once. Overall, we’re given an astonishing vision of the imbalanced society that causes Woyzeck’s madness.
Hogg’s perf also makes that lunacy compelling. Physically, he spends two hours running, tumbling and climbing the walls. Emotionally, though, he makes Woyzeck weary. His eyes sag, and he speaks in the high, soft tones of a man close to defeat.
The contrast between thesp’s athletic body and his desperate face suggests a boundless will to survive, even when there’s no use running. He may commit evil deeds, but Woyzeck is a doomed hero, too.