Wednesday, May 11, 2011

WOYZECK? YES PEAS! - 'Woyzeck' by The Hypocrites at The Chopin Theatre

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Early German Expressionism.

On paper, it is about as exhilarating a string of words as 'Discount Oil Change'. Historically however, German expressionism onstage is the artistic product of one of the most tumultuous eras of modern European history.

The more you know ~~~~~*

During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Germany was experiencing a radical wave of militant ethnic nationalism that would result in, not one, but two devastatingly destructive world wars. Pretty retrospectively exciting, right?
In 1836, a young Georg Büchner, one of Deutschland's most enduring dramatists, wrote his masterwork, Woyzeck. A heartily theme-laden and purposefully abstract piece, Woyzeck tragically tells the tale of power, religion, class, obligation, and jealousy through the eyes of a demeaned soldier.

Sounds like ideal fodder for The Hypocrites, a company founded on the principle of providing honest live experiences that put the theatricality back into theatre. Performed in collaboration with About Face Theatre, Sean Graney's visceral production of Woyzeck at The Chopin Theatre reinvents German expressionism from a genre lathered in soapy pretension into something titillating and treacherous.

Woyzeck was notably left unfinished by Georg Büchner at his death - a fact that many directors, editors, and writers have mined as a mandate to impose their own, oft-misguided visions over Büchner's prevailing voice. Unlike many of these artistes, director Sean Graney, in his work with The Hypocrites, has repeatedly proven himself an honorable adapter, nearly always keeping true to the spirit of the play at hand. While so many of his contemporaries lazily pull the trigger at aging dramas, Graney instead employs a sharpened scalpel for cutting the text - with the finesse and the respect of a Dexter-like serial killer. Like the final line of Büchner's play, this adaptation certainly is "a beautiful murder".

Sean Graney's thoughtful adaptation successfully captures the unique iron rigidity of nineteenth century Germany, while his direction imbues the world of the play with whimsy, shocking humor, and striking imagery - all at once bizarre, flamboyant, and luxurious. Imagine a blood soaked murderer eating peas over a fallen corpse while a woman upstage calmly strokes a fake deer. I would call that cross-section one of the more straightforward moments of the evening.

Woyzeck can be a difficult play to wrap your head around initially, but the plot itself is actually quite simple. Woyzeck, a soldier and government scientific experiment (he is forced to only eat peas!), kills his wife out of jealousy, believing that she had sex with another man (which she did). Easy enough. The trouble comes when one tries to make logical sense out of every single minuscule bit of minutiae that pierces the eyes, ears, and other less activated theatrical senses.

Woyzeck, and particularly this Woyzeck, requires willingness and patience from both the audience and performers. Woyzeck washes over the audience like the tide. You can stare out at the ocean for hours and hours and guess how far inland it will eventually encroach, but you will only truly know once it has arrived. I encourage you to allow Woyzeck to arrive. You will not be disappointed.

As you stare out at the proceedings, you will find yourself lost in a world that effortlessly fits the play, the performers, and the space. Every onstage facet is seamlessly welded together like a well-built German car. The scenic design by Tom Burch employs thick chopped logs as the primary element, and they are used with swiftness and rigor by the cast. The remainder of the stage is covered in obscured plastic sheets and sickly lime green. The phrase gorgeously yucky comes to mind.

Less Fiskness's lighting design marries with the scenery in a way that is so perfect, it seems at times that the light itself is emanating from the stage and the actors rather than from some hanging metal instruments above our heads.
The costumes by Izumi Inaba evoke the layered, worn clothing of old Germany, but reinterpret it as svelte, sexy punk wear. The characters that we like and the characters that we loathe all reek of something sinister.

One of the few (and believe me, there are very few) qualms I had with the production was the, at times, overpowering sound design by Mikhail Fiskel. I adored the bouncy Bavarian music (by Kevin O'Donnell) that transported me onto Willy Wonka's messed up boat, but the actors had to compete with it, and like the Triple Alliance, they lost.

Like most of the technical elements, the actors form a cohesive, yet playful and joyous unit - each establishing unique and quirky characteristics while still remaining one unified being. As Woyzeck, Geoff Button bleeds likability and hardship. His character has been trampled mercilessly by those in power around him, and the woman and child he works so hard to support do not truly love him back. Through all this, Button never plays the victim, which would be the easy way out - but like all the characters in this production, he exudes energetic innocence.

A fascinating choice by Graney involves a character named Jude-Marktschreier, played with a Cheshire Cat grin by Zeke Sulkes. Known in many productions as the Charlatan, Graney evolved this role to personify everything that is corrupt and paranoid about Woyzeck. Each time Woyzeck requests Maria to take his money, the Marktschreier says, "She will always,' signaling Woyzeck's insecurities right from the get go. The inclusion of this role gives enhanced rationale for Woyzeck's eventual murderous actions, and firmly establishes the play as a tragedy.

Of course, this all sounds super duper serious - but surrounding the blood, the horrific trauma, and the psychological exploration is ample hilarity and fun. There are jokes abound, and although the woman sitting in front of you might occasionally give you a judgmental glare when you laugh at them, laughter is indeed welcome. I mean, c'mon! Within two minutes of a disgusting, grotesque murder, the entire cast is singing Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time'. How silly!

After fourteen years as The Hypocrites' artistic director, Sean Graney is stepping down at the end of this season and opting for greener pastures. Woyzeck was part of his first season at the Hypocrites, and this production will be his final show at The Chopin - his tenure coming full circle. Woyzeck embodies everything that The Hypocrites have come to represent - excitement, danger, sexuality, honesty - and I cannot implore you enough to take in this incredible production by one of the best companies in Chicago - equity or non-equity. So even though it has a funny title, even though you may not know anything about it, even though it's early German expressionism - put all those old stigmas aside and see this positively electric show. Discount oil change, my ass.-Johnny Oleksinski

Woyzeck plays the Chopin Theatre through May 22.