`Woyzeck' Comes To Life

Potent staging of B"uchner classic reveals its impact on theater history. THEATER: REVIEW

THE history of George B"uchner's play ``Woyzeck'' has been largely one of neglect. Though created in the 1830s, this mold-shattering drama wasn't published until 1879 nor staged until 1913. The apparent reason is that the German playwright left the work in fragmentary form when he died at the age of 24. The segmented and nightmarish nature of the play makes a coherent production difficult, if not impossible. At least, that was the consensus for more than a century.

Now, however, that viewpoint must change, because ``Woyzeck'' finally came fully to life in a brilliant and profoundly moving production, the play's first in 10 years, by director Richard Foreman at the Hartford Stage.

Fully realized, ``Woyzeck'' became entirely persuasive. This production, which closed last weekend after a brief run,made it clear that B"uchner achieved a far-reaching impact on modern theater with his anticipation of the ritualism and expressionism of successors like Strindberg, Kafka, and Brecht. B"uchner's vision of the dislocation of the naive reality of his time was utterly shattering to contemporaries who read it. His intent was to destroy the genial fiction of 18th-century scientific pragmatism.

``Woyzeck'' is usually described as a tragedy of social injustice - the story of a primitive man at odds with oppressive social forces, a barber driven to madness, who kills his mistress and suffers tragic consequences. But in the excellent translation by Henry J. Schmidt and in the stage conception of Mr. Foreman, Woyzeck was seen not as a psychopath or retrograde primitive but an embodiment of the catastrophic human condition B"uchner foresaw on the dark horizon of the 20th century.

Because of the way Foreman revealed Woyzeck, we recognized ourselves in him; he became a startling transformation of the ``primitive outsider'' into a mirror image of us - a human being in a world with which he was no longer in touch.

What Eugene O'Neil attempted unsuccessfully when he tried to humanize Yank, the lowly central character of ``The Hairy Ape,'' B"uchner fully realized in ``Woyzeck.'' The playwright evokes the emotion inherent in mythological characters. His is a form of dramatic writing unfamiliar in the West, yet, as such, ``Woyzeck'' allows us to feel compassion without sentimentality. And that realization was greatly indebted to the theatrical imagination of Foreman.

The impact of the world B"uchner uncovers remains devastating today. So it is little wonder that in the 1920s, when composer Alban Berg attended a rare performance of ``Woyzeck,'' he immediately became determined to create an opera based on the play.

Berg's 1925 atonal opera was titled ``Wozzeck,'' an unintentional misspelling that Berg could not later correct because he realized the singing of the correct name would corrupt the accent of his musical line. Berg's operatic version has helped sustain the life of B"uchner's play.

From the ``unfinished'' drama, Foreman created a ritual of experience. To that end, he reinvented the theater, designing a totally non-pictorial stage environment which functioned as a cosmic membrane in which the characters lived out their nightmarish lives. Foreman also brought a cinematic concept of time and space to his production, made possible by his marvellous sense of movement.

The body language of his actors - sliding, falling, rolling, and running - was completely outside naturalism while at the same time creating a delirious kind of realism. The sound design, also by Foreman, was another integral aspect of the production, insinuating the horror that lurks behind B"uchner's powerful dialogue, accenting the choreographed lovemaking and violence, and liberating the immense gentleness and longing of the tragic characters.

One suspects that Foreman also designed the expressionist makeup for his actors, whose faces betrayed a fragile existence only partially human, like those fearsome faces in the film ``The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.'' Of equal impact were the grotesque costumes by Lindsay Davis and the perfectly atmospheric and often bleak and blinding lighting by Heather Carson.

Though Foreman's achievement was profound, it could not have existed without actors equal to his vision. David Patrick Kelly in the title role and Gordana Rashovich as Marie were excellent. And rarely does a company match the seamless vocal and acting talents of the Hartford cast. The contribution of the entire Hartford Stage ensemble was impeccable.

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