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 Ghost Sonata (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle’s ‘Ghost Sonata’ doesn’t sing

 

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Oracle Theatre presents
 
The Ghost Sonata
 
by August Strindberg
directed by Max Truax
at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through June 19th  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata is a tough play to crack open. Written over a century ago, the masterpiece is considered a wonder of Modernist drama. Therefore, it has plenty of bizarre twists and characterizations (vampires and ghosts, anyone?).  Especially now, when we’re used to straightforward stories force-fed through movies and television, the piece is hard to navigate. Oracle Theatre and director Max Truax certainly take up this challenge with their heavily-expressionistic version. Even though they engage Strindberg with honesty and compassion, the end product leaves us bewildered and groping for answers.

ghost_sonata_press_2_resizeYou may want to read a translation of the play before setting out for this production. Truax and his driven cast seem very concerned with conveying mood and themes, but to the detriment of plot and clarity. I had the feeling that everyone onstage knew what was going on but I wasn’t completely welcome. It was like looking through a very dusty window. After a few scenes, it is possible to piece together the general story, but this production doesn’t help much in terms of leading the audience through Strindberg’s dense text.

Truax and his design team create a bizarrely fascinating world, conquering the sometimes awkward Oracle space. There were some amazing stage pictures formed by Truax (doubling as set designer), who whipped up some awesome forced perspective. Although the video projections sometimes confuse the storyline, Michael Janicki’s work fits the twisted world well, with vaguely Victorian black-and-white images appearing in a frame above the action.

The audience enters to Rich Logan looking all comatose in a wheelchair. As the elderly Jacob Hummel, he pushes and manipulates the play forward, imparting plenty of creepiness to the already dark script. Strindberg’s text revolves around a Student (Federico Rodriguez), who meets a cast of wacky characters, including the scheming Hummel, a mummy (Ann Sonneville), a ghostly maid (Lily Emerson), and a dead guy (John Arthur Lewis). Again, even though each of the actors understands and brings life to their characters, the gothic world is not very well explained. Rodriguez carries the show, although sometimes he doesn’t recognize the close relationship he has to the audience. Stephanie Polt fits well into the oppressive world as the object of the Student’s affection, but Sean Ewert as her father, the Colonel, doesn’t match the others. Justin Warren can also fall out of the production’s universe, but he brings some much needed comic relief.

While the performances usually deeply connect to the text, they don’t fit into the space. Truax and his actors seem unaware of how to utilize Oracle’s intimate stage. When emotions run high, the actors often resort to screaming. The audience gets irritated and interest flags. In such an enclosed and small theatre, overplaying can be disastrous. This Ghost Sonata isn’t ruined by yelling, but some over-the-top moments knock down the impact of the play.

Besides clarity, the biggest issue afflicting Truax’s production is a lack of humor. Yes, this is a dark, turn-of-the-century, proto-Expressionistic script, but there has to be some releases—Strindberg, being a master dramatist, pens them in. Avoiding the humor can make the play feel highly melodramatic and uninteresting. There are some nuggets of humor, but most of it is swept away to make way for dreariness.

Truax’s production is very conceptual and looks pretty cool, but fails to respect Strindberg’s text. The focus is too much on theme and not enough on story. The talent is obviously there; with a few exceptions, it seemed like the whole cast was on-board and clicking with each other. The design makes some very innovative choices that you might not expect from a storefront. Oracle’s Achilles’ Heal here is storytelling; Truax finds great skin but uses a weak skeleton.

  
  
Rating: ★★
 
 

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