Graney turns a cerebral classic into a hallucinatory horror

Büchner’s play Woyzeck has become a classic commentary on the dehumanizing effects of military culture and sexual repression.

By Rob Underwood

The Hypocrites’ production of Woyzeck at Wicker Park’s Chopin Theater is a daring new take on Georg Büchner’s posthumously published play. Büchner’s play, left unfinished and out of order at the time of his death, has become a classic commentary on the dehumanizing effects of military culture and sexual repression. The play has inspired artists ranging from Werner Herzog to Tom Waits, and many have succeeded in persuasively filling out the skeletal play Büchner left us with.

Director Sean Graney updated this production of Woyzeck by organizing stark, minimalist backdrops in a captivating fashion, adding a dimension of extreme theatricality and in turn giving new emphasis to the incredibly frenetic dialogue. Though these unique developments have the potential to completely detract from the dialogue’s content, Graney skillfully maneuvers from subdued pathos to near-psychotic tirades, creating a mostly compelling, though thoroughly unpredictable, adaptation.

Even before the play begins, the amalgamation of theatrical décor and participant, set-piece and actor, is considerably blurred. At least twenty minutes before the scheduled time, the theater is full of activity and sound; music consists solely of ambient drones, while a figure in a full-body suit and gas mask mops the stage floor around what seems to be a dead body. Acts of sterilization and quarantine, which are not properly explained, serve to highlight the cold light of medical and psychological examination, which the title character (played by the boyish yet seething Geoff Button) undergoes throughout the play. Husband and father, Woyzeck subjects himself to manual labor and bizarre medical studies to support his illegitimate child and common-law wife, Marie (Lindsey Gavel). Hounded constantly by the Captain and Herr Doktor (Sean Patrick Fawcett and Ryan Bollettino) who oversee his activity, Woyzeck’s only sense of comfort and stability crumbles when Marie cheats on him with a brash soldier who retains all the virility and dynamism this military culture seems to be draining from Woyzeck.

Though captivating in itself, the play would be nothing without Tom Burch’s hallucinatory set design and Graney’s deft use of absurdist and meta-theatrical techniques. Mixing elements of pastoral romance, slowly-developing psychosis and chaotic violence, Burch uses incredible economy in populating the set with diverse tools that Graney can manipulate. Despite this diversity, Burch keeps the environment grounded by instilling a comprehensively sterile, even lifeless atmosphere: a clearly fake plastic deer stands completely untouched throughout the play; a rock stands in for Woyzeck and Marie’s illegitimate child; Woyzeck uses a baseball bat rather than an axe to “chop” wood. The disconnect between what the objects represent and how the characters use them gives the production an undercurrent of unsettling humor which thoroughly entertains without removing the critical dimension of Büchner’s words.

Graney takes full advantage of the diverse theatrical implications that such an adaptation provides. Specifically, actors never leave the stage, becoming instead part of a system of “interactive” set pieces when removed from the actual dialogue. Sitting on stumps which line the border of the stage, the actors repeat various thematically-charged words (in particular those oriented around death).

The way in which Graney incorporates the characters into the environment, along with the various forms of verbal repetition he utilizes, emphasize his personal and uniquely modern approach to theater. Though the actors all provide capable and compelling performances, they are not responsible for the enduring originality of the entire production. This stems directly from the way in which Graney makes use of their craft, his ability to organize both actors and set-pieces into perpetually unique forms, and his fresh expression of words that have been adapted and re-adapted for nearly two hundred years.