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

Continue reading

REVIEW: In the Jungle of Cities (Ka-Tet Theatre Company)

   
   

Absurdist Play is an Acquired Taste

 

Scene from Bertolt Brech's "In The Jungle of Cities" - Ka-Tet Theatre

   
Ka-Tet Theatre Company presents
  
In the Jungle of Cities
   
Written by Bertolt Brecht
Directed by
Max Truax
Translated by
Anselm Hollo
at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map)
through November 20  |  tickets: $20   |  more info

To not hate In the Jungle of Cities, the new production by Ka-Tet Theatre Company, you have to have some context of the work and its eccentric, yet heavily influential, playwright. The play was penned by Bertolt Brecht, a German playwright and devout Marxist whose modernist take on drama helped him carve out a unique niche in the world of theatre. His style of theatre is far from the traditional. The audience is discouraged from identifying with the characters. Rather, they are to see them as societal symbols personified. Meanwhile, the actions of the play are less like a plot and more like a long and winding allegory.

Scene from Bertolt Brech's "In The Jungle of Cities" - Ka-Tet TheatrePersonally, I’m not a fan of plays that require an audience to have a familiarity with the author’s aesthetic and body of work in order to derive enjoyment. It just feels so pretentious. But for those that are either already Brecht fans or don’t mind doing some research beforehand, you’ll definitely be pleased with Ka-Tet’s efforts in bringing the bizarrely absurdist piece to life.

The play takes place in Chicago. Two men are engaged in a bitter fight. One is a book clerk named George Garga (James Errico). The other is a wealthy Chinese lumber merchant named Schlink (Jeremy Clark). Going into the specifics of the plot for a play like this is worthless as there really isn’t much of a story but rather a seemingly stream of consciousness series of actions. True, there are bursts of coherent scenes here and there, such as Schlink handing over his lumberyard to Garga. But overall it’s a frantic, and sometimes frustrating, piece of work.

Although the uninitiated will likely leave the theater scratching their heads, even those unfamiliar with Brecht’s body of work will appreciate Clark’s spellbinding portrayal of Schlink. With an intense gaze and a commanding presence, Clark’s performance is gripping. It doesn’t hurt that he can cry on cue, too.

The supporting cast is also quite talented, including Rory Jobst as The Barker, a narrator-like figure who opens each scene with a strange and detached sort of rant before suddenly, as if possessed by a spirit, spouts out the scene’s time, date and location.

Scene from Bertolt Brech's "In The Jungle of Cities" - Ka-Tet Theatre

Despite its sheer weight and weirdness, the play is surprisingly funny. Perhaps this is in part because it is a translation of the original, so the language is comical. But I’d like to think that this was Brecht’s intention, to highlight the absurdity of our greedy capitalist culture through absurd humor.

Max Truax directs, using the Red Tape Theatre’s open space to his full advantage. The expansive and bare-boned set has the feel of a desolate city, thanks in part also to the use of a fog machine. During the play’s most charged moments, Truax positions the actors to play extremely far downstage, making the emotional intensity of the scene’s that much more effective.

In the Jungle of Cities will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, I can’t imagine many having the palette for it. But despite the lunacy of it all, the production succeeds thanks to some strong performances and adept direction.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

In the Jungle of Cities - Ka-Tet Theatre - poster

 

Continue reading