Review: Woyzeck (Oracle Theatre)

     
     

‘Woyzeck’ shows uncompromising artistic vision

  
  

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max Truax

  
Oracle Theatre presents
  
Woyzeck
  
Written by Georg Büchner
Translated by David Steiger
Directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: free (public access)  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Woyzeck, now onstage at Oracle Theatre, is not just a searing, bold display of German expressionism, it’s also a unique theatrical experience of uncompromising vision, daring and macabre power. Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1837 tragedy about a working class soldier faced with insurmountable oppression, madness and betrayal has seen several revisions, including Werner Herzog’s film of the same name. David Steiger’s translation utilizes direct, clear poetry in expressing Woyzeck’s (Sean Patrick Ward) terrifying schizophrenic state. But is it the multiple elements pulled together by Max Truax’s direction that carry the day—or, rather, the unrelenting night–from which Woyzeck cannot escape.

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max TruaxEric Van Tassell’s lighting design, with its bleary reds and blues, melds perfectly with the projected images of wild fields inexorably buffeted by the wind (cinematography by Michael Fernandez and Jeremy Applebaum, video design by Max Truax and Bill Ryan, projectionist Ben Fuchsen). James Ogden’s set design elevates the stage to give us subterranean levels that reflect not only the hellish depths of Woyzeck’s mind but also the darker undercurrent of the human soul. One feels that when the actors are playing on top of the stage, they are always a step away from its precipice, emotionally as well as physically. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design crowns the production with its eerie nails-on-the-blackboard effects. Woyzeck is mad, but madness surrounds him, it is his environment, it is the world in which he lives.

The Captain (Sarah Shook) and the Doctor (Sarah Pretz) stand out as Woyzeck’s primary tormentors—the former believing that his underling must be immoral by dint of his poverty, the latter conceiving of Woyzeck as little more than a specimen for his experiments. Both actors possess disturbing otherworldliness, enhanced, no doubt, by the gender-bending aspects of their performance. But it’s Pretz’s deliciously icy delivery that brings home the benighted place that Woyzeck holds in 19th century society. Furthermore, it presciently foretells the development of Nazi eugenics a century before the Third Reich.

Reduced to being a pawn in his lowly position, Woyzeck can hardly hope to hang on to Marie (Stephanie Polt), the mother of his child once the Drum Major (James Errico) sets his sights on her. Ward’s performance as the troubled soldier almost seamlessly portrays a man hanging on to sanity by his fingernails, the loss of Marie being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Polt’s sensuality is undeniable; her costume (Joan Pritchard) stands out as one more inspired detail in a production built on ripe symbolism. As for Errico, his flare for vain, bullish masculinity definitely contrasts with Woyzeck’s vulnerability and insecurity, as well as doubly underscoring the terror and despair Woyzeck feels against chthonic and unstoppable desire.

If there’s one flaw in Oracle’s efforts, it’s in its commendable, yet overlong dance sequence (choreography Lyndsay Rose Kane) to Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To the End of Love.” It depicts Woyzeck’s obsessive horror with Marie’s betrayal, as well as subversive desire in general. A bit of editing here would only punch up the piece. Dragged on too long, the power of the moment becomes lost. But this is just one flaw in an otherwise dead-on production. Oracle knows how to reap the most dread out of oppression, cruelty, heartlessness and insanity. Theirs is the must-see show of this season.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woyzeck by Georg Bruchner, now being presented by Chicago's Oracle Theatre, directed by Max Truax

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Review: The First Ladies (Trap Door Theatre)

  
  

Play proves potty language can be poetry

  
  

Nicole Wiesner, Dado, Beata Pilch - Trap Door Theatre - The First Ladies

  
Trap Door Theatre presents
    
The First Ladies
   
Written by Werner Schwab
Translated by
Michael Mitchell
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

I don’t think it is a coincidence that playwright Werner Schwab hails from the same nation as Sigmund Freud. Both are utterly obsessed with notions of sex and bowel movements. Human orifices attract their attention, especially when something is going in or coming out one. And both enjoy venturing to the deep, dark crevices of the human mind, those mental closets where our skeletons are stored. In short, Austria must be one hell of a place.

This is what I have deduced after seeing Trap Door Theatre‘s brilliant production of Schwab’s The First Ladies. The flawless work is a wicked and twisted comedy about the futile dreams of the lower class. The language is poetic without pretension, the acting is solid as stone and the set design is exquisitely detailed—and all this from a play that proudly boasts several lengthy monologues about scooping excrement out of a toilet with one’s bare hands.

Nicole Wiesner - Trap Door Theatre - The First LadiesThe play, told in two acts, is about three lower class ladies, each of whom sports her own unique dream of fulfillment and satisfaction. The first act is mainly exposition.

Erna (Dado) is the prude. She is a teetotaler and a woman of God. She is proud of the fur hat and color television she found in a garbage dump, and she is quick to judge the other ladies for their lack of restraint. We learn she has a son who has an affinity for drinking and violent outbursts.

Meanwhile, Greta (Beata Pilch) is the saucy one. She dons faux-snakeskin pants and a series of gold chains. While Erna eagerly watches televised communions, Greta slouches in her gaudy armchair, legs akimbo, looking bored out of her mind. She is the type of lady you would neglect to call a lady. She has an estranged daughter who lives in Australia that she hasn’t heard from in nearly a decade.

And then there’s Marie (Nicole Wiesner), sweet and simple Marie. She is the Lenny of the bunch, prone to wild hand gestures and goofy facial expressions. She is a people pleaser at heart, but the way she chooses to please is unorthodox to say the least. Her profession is to unclog toilets. But she does it with gusto and bare hands. Because of her imbecile nature, the other two ladies are quick to overlook her.

The second act focuses on each lady’s dream. The three women take turns sharing bits and pieces of their fantasies, which all take place at the same fancy nightclub. Erna dreams of being swept off her feet by the local butcher; Greta envisions being sexually pleasured by a tuba player and Marie finds treasures at the bottom of toilets. It’s incredibly absurd, but the conviction of the actors, the adeptness of the direction and the cleverness of the script make it work.

Beata Pilch - Trap Door Theatre - The First LadiesAll the actresses do outstanding jobs, but special accolades must be paid to Wiesner, whose portrayal of Marie the simpleton is absolutely stunning. She truly embodies this character, as evidenced by her performance’s unwavering consistency. And the end, where Marie delivers a powerful, metaphor-laced monologue, is a prime example of technical acting skill.

TUTA Theatre‘s artistic director Zeljko Djukic directs The First Ladies with the skilled hand of a master. There is a lot of give and take in this play, with the women exchanging focus regularly. Djukic makes sure the hand off is smooth and the energy never drops. Also, changes in tone and mood are handled in an organic matter so as to be unforced yet still effectively jarring.

Schwab’s word choice and sentence structure (as translated by Michael Mitchell) is wholly unique. He certainly practices the economy of language, using precision to create concise sentences impregnated with significant meaning. It’s a staccato form of poetry that hits the ear in what I would describe as musical cacophony. It’s not necessarily pretty, but its ugliness has a certain beauty.

The First Ladies is an unsettling laugh-out-loud comedy that proves high art can have elements of the low brow. If you’re easily sickened by graphic talk of bathroom by-products, toughen up and see this play.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Nicole Wiesner - Trap Door Theatre - The First Ladies

The First Ladies continues through April 16th with performances on Thursday-Sunday at 8pm.  Tickets are $10 on Thursdays and $20 on Friday and Saturdays.  For more information and tickets, go to trapdoortheatre.com.

All photos by Michal Janicki.

  
  

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REVIEW: Hamletmachine (Trap Door Theatre)

     
     

good design ≠ good machine

     
     

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller

   
Trap Door Theatre presents
  
Hamletmachine
   
Written by Heiner Müller
Translated by Carl Weber 
Directed by
Max Traux
at
Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland (map)
through Feb 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As one of the leading figures in postmodern literature, Heiner Müller is nearly as widely influential as fellow German Bertolt Brecht. However, Müller, with ingenious methods of chopping up and pureeing language and story, never gets the same exposure on this side of the ocean as that master of alienation, Brecht. Some of this might come with time, considering that Brecht wrote about 30-50 years before Müller. American audiences may also have a hard time stomaching Müller’s intentionally entangled, muddy hairballs of non-linear narrative, which make Brecht’s plots look relatively straightforward.

Director Max Traux and Trap Door Theatre have a hard time dealing with Müller’s deliberate mess with their production of Hamletmachine, the playwright’s 1977 opus. The piece riffs on both Shakespeare and machines, slamming together Hamlet with 20th Century existentialist questions. Traux conceptualizes the 9-page play (!) as a rock opera of sorts, turning several of Müller’s phrases into musical catchphrases. Although the page length seems miniscule, it’s a very dense nine pages. Müller once staged a 7-hour production of Hamlet, featuring Hamletmachine as the play-within-a-play. At Trap Door, Traux spreads the text among three Hamlets, two Ophelias, and a Gertrude for good measure, further splintering the piece. The droning music, fierce acting, and heavy choreography impart weightiness, but it’s hard to discern much substance from Trap Door’s bloated production. We see lots of horrified expressions and hear plenty of pained soliloquies, but I was never sure exactly why anything was happening.

Müller and Traux are assuming that the audience is fairly familiar with Shakespeare’s original, arguably the most important work of literature in human history (we may have to reconsider after Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark is published….). Here, Hamlet (either Antonio Brunetti, Rich Logan, or David Steiger) mulls over his usual philosophical inquiries while also posing questions about modern-day revolution and art. Müller really shows off his genius when placing Hamlet’s fundamentally human dilemmas in a contemporary context—“Tomorrow has been cancelled” is an oft-repeated line through the piece.

The cast does a noteworthy job breathing life into Traux’s bizarre, fluorescent-lit world. Rich Logan’s limber, ponytailed version of Hamlet is the most interesting to watch, even when hunkered down in the aisles and gleefully eyeing the action occurring on-stage. Tiffany Joy Ross and Sadie Rogers present two very different characterizations of Ophelia, adding further complexity to the piece. It was obvious the actors were all very committed, but the performances lacked clarity. One can’t expect defined motivations and objectives from such an expressionist extravaganza, but choices should make sense in some way. In Trap Door’s manic production, a lot of the meaning soars over the audience’s heads.

Jonathan Guillen and Nicholas Tonozzi provide an eerie soundscape for Traux’s hellish vision, with a focus on repetition a la Philip Glass. Costume designer Nevena Todorovic creates fascinating concoctions that combine Elizabethan styles with strong doses of steampunk. In general, the design does a fantastic job of evoking a specific mood (a bleak, unhappy mood), a specificity the rest of the production yearns for.

The best moment of the play occurs when Hamlet #3, David Steiger, gives a monologue describing a populist uprising. There is no singing or choreography, just an actor addressing the audience. Steiger gives the audience something to cling onto amid the storm. Even though that moment doesn’t gel with the rest of the play stylistically, it is the most powerful.

Trap Door’s failing, noble as it may be, is that the production is overburdened conceptually. Müller’s script is already a puzzle. In production, the confusion should be unraveled somewhat, not wound tighter. Traux’s vision of the play may be brilliant, but it doesn’t read.

     
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Composer & Sound Designer: Jonathan Guillen / Production Designer: Richard Norwood / Stage Manager: Barry Branfrod / Costume Designer: Nevena Todorovic / Graphic and Video Designer: Michal Janicki / Production Manager: Caitlin Boylan / Makeup Design: Zsófia ÖtvösMusic Collaborator: Nicholas Tonozzi

Hamletmachine - Trap Door Theatre - Heiner Muller