Review: Woyzeck (The Hypocrites)

     
     

True to form, Sean Graney creates another ‘beautiful murder’

     
     

Erin Barlow (Kathë), Ryan Bollettino (Herr Doktor) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck) in Woyzeck at The Hypocrites

   
The Hypocrites present
  
Woyzeck
  
Written by Georg Büchner
Directed by Sean Graney
Music by Kevin O’Donnell
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

When Georg Büchner dropped dead in 1837, he left behind a work-in-progress that has since been a powerful draw for artists and academics…and an even bigger pain in the neck for editors. The original script for Woyzeck–that’s an assumed title, by the way; Büchner never had the chance to choose one himself–was a scribbled hodgepodge of fragments and scenes chronicling a layman’s transformation into a killer written on unnumbered pages.

Lindsey Gavel (Marie, foreground) and Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann, background) in The Hypocrites production of WOYZECK By Georg Büchner, adapted and directed by The Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney.  Photo by Ryan Bourque.Performing the text as-is is not an option, at least not a compelling one. Producing this soldier story takes a heavy-hand, a willingness to make a directorial mark, and some serious cojones.

Enter Sean Graney.

The Hypocrites artistic director has developed a knack for bold theatre and ranks among the most exciting directors working in Chicago. Graney possesses the ability to unearth the hearts of classic texts and translate them to contemporary audiences by employing an arsenal of visceral elements. In this Woyzeck, he plays maestro–soundscapes, a dumb show, and music by Kevin O’Donnell help forward the plot and give body to heady expressionist ideas. His adaptation streamlines what Büchner left meandering. His rewrites, rearrangements, and omissions are always with clear purpose and are always for the better.

The title tragic hero, played by Geoff Button, is given the full Job treatment from his country, his colleagues and his wife. Subjected to inhumane medical experiments, degrading work conditions and an ungrateful spendthrift spouse, Woyzeck descends into desperation. His misery is amplified by the production’s wry, cruelly detached sense of humor–his child is literally presented as dead weight: a rock.

Visually, it’s captivating. Tom Burch’s set design juxtaposes nature with biohazard plastics in a vast and functional playing space. Dangerous elements get the richest, most appealing colors–appropriate for a show whose characters find beauty in destruction.

The Hyprocrites allow us to pity the tormented protagonist while alienating us just enough to objectively consider the morality of his and our resentment toward his adulteress wife (Lindsey Gavel). Added repetition in dialogue and gestures conveys the soldier’s ability to endure anguish for the people he loves, and suggests a breaking point may be the only solution for escaping the hellish loop of giving-without-return; suggests, but doesn’t dictate. The specific tragic end Graney chooses for his doomed young man leaves some questions open-ended. Unlike in Büchner’s text, they’re the right kind.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck).

All photos by Ryan Bourque

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REVIEW: Dead Letter Office (Dog & Pony Theatre)

Save for production team, this office is dead on arrival

 

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Dog & Pony Theatre presents
   
Dead Letter Office
   
by Phillip Dawkins
directed by
David Dieterich Gray
at
Storefront Theater (DCA), 66 E. Randolph (map)
through July 18  |  tickets: $17-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The concept of a dead letter office, the place where undeliverable mail retires, is ripe with theatrical metaphor. What is the existential condition of those letters that can’t go backwards or forwards? How do the employees feel about rummaging through an anonymous person’s mail? With such questions, and others, it is surprising no one Dead Letter Office - Dog and Pony 007 has mined this before. Dog & Pony Theatre took the chance to grab onto this fresh idea and commissioned scribe Phillip Dawkins to write a play around it. Unfortunately, the resulting piece, Dead Letter Office, doesn’t deliver. The production dabbles in a few styles and storylines, but never makes a decision concerning what it ultimately wants to be.

Dawkins sets his story around office veteran Christian (John Fenner Mays) and his budding relationship with newbie Je’ Taime (Kristen Magee). Like the wayward parcels surrounding them, the two have dubious pasts. Je’ Taime has worked careers more fitting for her moniker, and Christian used to be a boxer but then he killed a guy. Dawkins’ exposition and storylines seem to recycle plot-points yanked out of everything from Spring Awakening to Pulp Fiction. Unlike the dead letter office setting, these backstories are stale. Through the course of the play, we also get to see saccharine Agatha (Susan Price) gradually “go postal,” and boss Rolo (Joshua Volkers) be creepy.

The script is wildly uneven. Act One is staunch realism and drags along at a sleepy pace. By the second act, the play has become a ghost story a la Piano Lesson. At an unintentionally farcical speed, the characters (especially Je’ Taime) rip away layers, revealing abuse and self-destruction. In one awkward scene, Je’ Taime asks Christian to punch away so “she can feel something.” I’m fine with wacky, screwed-up plays (which it seems every young, male playwright has to write), but that sort of gritty ridiculousness has to be introduced early and often. Here, it comes out of nowhere. Most of the last hour is unearned, and the production devolves into a messy conclusion.

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Part of the problem can be pinned on the process of this production. It was mere weeks ago Dawkins was commissioned to write the piece, which had everything (actors, director, concept) but a script. So it’s understandable (and forgivable) that he turned to hackneyed and scattershot plots and characters.

The most gratifying element of this production is the design. It’s friggin’ amazing. William Anderson’s USPS office is wonderfuly cluttered with all the mismatched objects you would expect to find in such a bizarre place. The most whimsical aspect of the whole production is the giant chute that spills out all sorts of things (I was expecting a dead body to fly out at one point, but, alas, we can’t get everything we hope for). When Aaron Weissman’s lights, Stephen Ptacek’s eerie sound design, and Catherine Tantillo’s spot-on costumes are added to the mix, the production is given a creaky yet beautiful shell. It’s a shame the actual play doesn’t live up to it.

It takes more than a concept to drive art forward – no matter what the medium is – else you end up with a heady, theme-over-content mess. Dead Letter Office isn’t that far gone. Mays does great work as the icy Christian, making the production watchable. Another standout is Volkers, who is quick to find the comedy in Dawkins’ welcoming text.

Hopefully, director Dieterich Gray and Dog & Pony will learn from this experience. They have heart and talent, obviously. Even when fertilized with such a great idea, without a healthy base of character and story, any commissioned piece is going to grow stunted and wilted. Perhaps one should allow Dead Letter Office be a growing pain, and leave it at that.

   
    
Rating: ★½
   
   

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