Rock on, Georg Buchner! Icelandic experimental troupe Vesturport has taken on the unenviable task of sexing up the German dramatist’s dense, unfinished proto-expressionist 1879 drama, “Woyzeck,” and, while the resulting mash-up makes almost no sense, parts of it sure are fun to watch. Aided and abetted by the incomparable Nick Cave (and Warren Ellis, who teamed with Cave on films like “The Proposition”), “Woyzeck” includes a half-dozen hugely cool songs, among them a thumping anthem, a ballad and a sing-songy rockabilly number about mortality delivered, naturally, by some dude in an Elvis outfit. Ah, Euro theater.
Borkur Jonsson’s vast factory set is a dystopian creation that would make Terry Gilliam weep with jealousy. A two-tiered tower of pipes and scaffolding, the entire structure sits atop a grassy hillock that transforms abruptly into a long aquarium-style tank of water (the lake, in Buchner’s original text).
Enter Woyzeck (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), a rube reminiscent of late-period Homer Simpson — a blue-collar guy who’s used to doing everything wrong.
The forces making Woyzeck most miserable are the Doctor (a woman in this production, Harpa Arnarsdottir), and the Captain (Vikingur Kristjansson), a girthsome twerp with a penchant for chucking our hero bodily across the stage. Woyzeck’s sole comfort is his wife Marie (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir), who has her own problems, her dweeby husband chief among them.
This all changes with the boisterous entrance of the Drum Major (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson), who descends — literally — onto the stage singing a song about his glorious self. “I have legs like a stallion!” he roars. “And the back of an ox!/I stand six-foot-six/In only my socks!” Much to Marie’s delight, he’s not lying.
The whole cast does well with this piece, but Haraldsson really makes the most of the rock-star part, swaggering around the stage and gamely delivering portentous snatches of dialogue such as “I will sprinkle water upon you, and you shall be clean!” like pick-up lines.
Soon, the Drum Major starts ogling Marie and tosses Woyzeck away like an old shoe. What more can be done to this poor guy? If you guessed “nothing,” you clearly have not seen enough Communist-influenced drama. Woyzeck continues to suffer, eventually dealing with his problems by dominating the only person he has any influence over: Marie.
Energetic as this production is, it’s not a happy play, and it’s certainly more interesting as an artifact in a wildly altered presentation than as a straightforward text. Helmer Gisli Orn Gardarsson has hit on something highly clever here: some elderly, idea-rich dramas go down more smoothly when presented in circus form.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Woyzeck’s actions at the play’s climax don’t really seem to come from any internal motivation, and the noise keeps us from getting to know our main character very well. And while the play’s politics take a back seat to the production’s acrobatics (this may be the first staging of “Woyzeck” to include trapezes), some of the ideas ring false in a production this radically decontextualized.
“Woyzeck” is inarguably one of the most influential plays in theater history, and it’s rarely staged in America. It’s probably best to forgive Vesturport its errors, all of which seem to have been made in the company’s haste to entertain. At that, the show is an unqualified success.