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: Blood Wedding (Oracle Theatre)

 

A Spooky Spanish Time at Oracle

 

 

Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatre 2

  
Oracle Theatre presents
   
Blood Wedding
   
Written by Federico Garcia Lorca
Directed by
Ben Fuchsen
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
thru Nov 20  |  tickets: by donation  |  more info

Not often do classic canonical plays get featured as a Halloween fright fest. Yeah, ghosts and witches show up in many lists of characters, but they’re usually too heavily laden with symbolism and plot development to cause any nightmares. So Oracle Theatre is going out on a limb this year with their Halloween offering, Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. The results are mixed. Although Lorca’s lush language evokes plenty of chills, director Ben Fuchsen’s production lacks clarity and cohesiveness.

Lorca, one of the key purveyors of tragedy in the 20th Century, lived a pretty tragic life himself. A gay writer in Spain between the wars, he found himself spurned by men like Salvador Dali as well as facing the stresses of immense critical and commercial success at a young age. He ended up face down in a ditch somewhere, silenced by Franco’s Fascists in 1936. Yet his unsettling plays, many of which seem directly inspired by Sophocles or Euripides, have enjoyed popularity the world over. Blood Wedding is Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatreone of the best known. It follows a pretty standard storyline: longstanding feuds between families, nuptials, infidelity, murder, etc. What makes the piece stand apart is Lorca’s gorgeous poetry and his inclusion of vengeful supernatural forces in this very human story. The Moon, angry that man shuts their windows at night (and therefore shun him), decides to join Death in the manhunt for the runaway bride and her lover. Something much heavier than simple jealousy is going on.

Oracle mines the otherworldly elements of Lorca as much as they can. Instead of a small scene in the latter half of the play, Fuchsen places the Moon (a nearly-nude Justin Warren) and Death (Sasha Walloch clad as a flamenco dancer) in almost every moment. The duo brings a sinister vibe to the whole piece. They conjure all the spookiness in the production, wielding bloody, spine-chilling noises, and frenetic movements.

As their supernatural characters, Warren and Walloch take on all the supporting roles as well. This is where it everything starts to get muddled. We start wondering who is who—is Walloch playing Death now, or a servant woman, or Death pretending to be a servant woman? The concept is engaging, but the execution needs retooling.

The production could really benefit from a plot synopsis in the program. This is due to the fact that the cast focuses on creating atmosphere over storytelling. With its myriad of metaphors, Blood Wedding’s mood is intoxicating, but it’s impossible to stay engaged in that world when you’re just trying to keep up with the story. The style also fluctuates—some actors (like Sarah Pretz, who plays the ominous Mother), stick with heightened realism. Others, Alexander Gerber, for example, who portrays the unwitting (and slightly goofy) Groom, choose to face the audience and speak their lines with an expressionist slant. Both work for the piece, although the realism is far more grounded. The problem is that the stylization isn’t consistent, causing more plot and character confusion.

When you just sit back and let the show flood over you, there’s some great stuff. James Ogden’s gloomy set, consisting of several lacy screens, is appropriately creepy and smartly used. The statuesque Pretz commands the tiny Oracle stage like a captain on a ship. And there were two solid moments that terrorized me. Most of all, Lorca’s tremendous poetic skill, translated here by Michael DeWell and Carmen Zapata, is delicious and heartwrenching all at once.

Oracle is no stranger to the Halloween show. They’ve put up some well-received haunted house-style experiences in the past. I’m not completely sold Lorca can be repackaged as a Halloween treat, but the cast definitely puts forth tons of effort. But with more plot clarity, the production could earn a whole lot more screams.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Blood Wedding - Oracle Theatre - poster