Given the troupe’s penchant for challenging, politically oriented theater, it may have been inevitable that Tim Robbins’ Actors’ Gang would eventually tackle “Woyzeck.” The play and the company seem ideally suited to each other, though it’s questionable whether Brian Kulick’s production shows off either to its best advantage.
Kulick has created a high-energy, high-volume production that eschews subtlety and naturalism in favor of a heightened theatricality. It’s a valid approach to this seminal and astonishingly contemporary 1836 work, but it has its limitations.
Georg Buchner’s story is one of a common soldier who is driven to murder after being manipulated by virtually everyone in his life. His officers keep him busy with menial tasks; his mate, Marie, keeps him guessing as to when she will leave him for another lover.
For a little extra money–which goes to buy milk for his child– Woyzeck even lets himself be experimented on by a megalomaniacal scientist, who has prescribed for him a diet consisting solely of peas. He is a pawn in a game that he doesn’t really understand and can barely keep up with.
“Woyzeck” is more a series of fragments than a carefully structured play, and even scholars don’t know what order the 20-some scenes are supposed to follow.
For this production, writer Han Ong created a new adaptation: He shuffled the scenes to his liking, unobtrusively updated the language and even added a character (a priest, who is only referred to in Buchner’s text).
Ong’s major innovation consists of two sequences in which the audience sees two of the play’s scenes simultaneously. In the longer and more substantive of these, Woyzeck shaves one officer stage left while Marie is being seduced by another officer stage right. The juxtaposition works, in large part because Woyzeck is clearly worrying about the doings of his fickle mate as he hurriedly takes care of the garrulous officer’s needs.
Mark Wendland’s striking set essentially consists of a metallic wall, which first serves as a backdrop, is later raised to the ceiling like a garage door and finally is lowered to serve as a steeply raked playing area. It is peppered with panels, from which actors tend to pop in and out.
The set cleverly and effectively utilizes the small space: Its flexibility allows scene changes to occur rapidly, and its neutral color nicely symbolizes the unnatural world Woyzeck is forced to inhabit.
Unfortunately, this effect (which is echoed in the colorless costumes) is undermined by the fact that the playing area used in the tragic final scenes is painted red. That sophomoric touch is unworthy of this production.
The standout among the able and energetic cast is Ned Bellamy, who manages to avoid every mad-scientist cliche while making the doctor a truly frightening figure. Less impressive is Shannon Holt, who is effective during Marie’s quiet moments but otherwise is oddly unfocused.
Brent Hinkley does not make a strong impression in the title role, but, to be fair, it would be terribly difficult to do so with so much activity always buzzing around him.
Actors are constantly in motion — dancing with mannequins, writing on walls, appearing and disappearing like puppets in a Punch-and-Judy show. This resonates interestingly with the text, but it does a disservice to the passive central character, who often fades into the busy background.
Thanks in part to Kevin Adams’ effective lighting design and the production’s excellent use of music (primarily 20th-century string quartets), this “Woyzeck” is, at times, mesmerizing. But Kulick’s unrelenting, in-your-face approach grows wearisome after a while, and it leaves little room for emotional involvement.