Review: Pony (About Face Theatre)

  
  

Brilliant, fully-committed cast can’t bridle Bruchner’s ‘Pony’

  
  

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
About Face Theatre presents
  
Pony
  
Written by Sylvan Oswald
Directed by Bonnie Metzgar
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Woyzeck was left unfinished when its author Georg Buchner died of typhus at the tender age of twenty-three in 1836. Buchner’s bleak depiction of working class life touched a nerve in 19th Century Germany. Since then, plenty of artists have taken it upon themselves to finish, adapt, and tweak the original, including composer Alban Berg and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Lucky for us, the Chicago theatre community is putting on a Woyzeck smorgasbord this spring, with plenty of chances to see new spins on the story. Oracle Theatre  and the Hypocrites have put on somewhat straightforward versions of the play, but About Face decided to move further away from the Buchner with Pony by Sylvan Oswald.

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Superbly acted and wonderfully designed, I wished that Oswald had stuck closer to the primary source or had ventured further away. What director Bonnie Metzgar ends up with is a derivative tale that is usually engrossing and often funny, but doesn’t really make much sense.

While Buchner was writing about the proletariat, Oswald is writing about gender identification. Every character in the play is either transgendered or interested in one, including Oswald’s stand-in for Woyzeck, Pony (Kelli Simpkins). Added to his woes about money and love, Pony must also deal with being outted in a potentially hostile community.

Pony takes place in the town across the forest from Woyzeck’s world. Instead of Industrial-age Germany, though, Pony’s world looks like a grimy Pennsylvania coal mining town of the 1980s. Everyone is covered in grit and everyone is poor.

Pony rides into town and instantly falls for Marie (Kristina Valada-Viars), a waitress obsessed with the murder that happened on the other side of the woods to a certain other Marie. Marie’s best friend Stel (Jessica Hudson) warns Pony that he better stay out of Marie’s life, which the audience learns is because she also secretly pines for Marie. Looking out for Pony’s well-being is Cav (Janet Ulrich Brooks), an old-school lesbian and the only scientist in town. And while Pony is courting Marie, Heath (Matthew Sherbach) is searching for Pony, laden with family secrets.

Pony is clearly inspired by Woyzeck, but the play goes off on Oswald’s own tangents. Instead of force-feeding peas, Cav subjects Pony to psychological evaluations. Marie ponders how a man can reach the desperation needed to kill the one thing in the world he loves—pretty much the question Buchner sets out to answer in his play. And Pony, like the other titular character, finds himself battered by society. Unfortunately, Oswald is unable to tie these themes together and the play feels more like a musing on the original than its own entity. Pony has difficulty finding a job and is devastated when he finds himself robbed, but he never reaches the utter anguish of Woyzeck. The romance between Pony and Marie is budding, not self-destructing. Oswald doesn’t reach the lower-class rage of Buchner and Pony doesn’t have its inspiration’s weight. By the end, the plot unravels into confusion. The final scene is especially tepid.

The brilliant, fully-committed cast, however, does what they can to keep the story alive. Brooks grabs the audience attention and pulls us along wherever she goes. Simpkins carries the show well, bursting with anger or sheepishly talking to Marie, whatever the script requires. Sherbach, besides some overuse of his hands, adds a great, humorous balance to the mix.

Many of the modern adaptations of Woyzeck, like Collaboraction’s Guinea Pig Solo, focus on the militaristic aspects of the play. About Face takes a different route with taking a hard look at the personal side. But without Metzgar’s awesome cast, the play would fall apart.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Matthew Sherbach (Heath) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All photos by Michael Brosilow 

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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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