Reviewed by Jason Fitzgerald
[See also: Cindy Pierre's review]
A young American soldier points a gun at the audience as female voices sing “Amazing Grace.” A Wagnerian mountain crag with a mysterious wooden wheel stands behind him. The soldier exits, and three women dressed in Goth-inspired laces and leather straps strut onto the stage to sing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” complete with Andrews Sisters choreography. The soldier re-enters with a comrade and begins speaking lines from Georg Büchner’s 1873 poetic tragedy Woyzeck. Each image is memorable in its own right, but . . . what do they have to do with each other?
So begins Counting Squares Theatre’s production of Woyzeck, which, unfortunately, never finds a satisfactory answer for this provocative question. The basic concept, as conceived by director Joshua Chase Gold, is to use Woyzeck (in which a man is brutalized by a faithless world and brutally murders his faithless wife) to tell the story of an American soldier stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder. The three-woman chorus, an invention of Gold’s, are a manifestation of Woyzeck’s growing illness: Only he can see these seductive sirens.
The production is as forced as the concept, and it butchers Woyzeck’s poetic “A fire’s sailing around the sky and a noise coming down like trumpets” by following it with his buddy’s “C’mon, man, they’re calling us!” As for scenes not as easily assimilated to the soldier’s tale, like that of the scalpel-hearted doctor who pays Woyzeck to eat peas for a month, they read as campy, and comic, interludes rather critical signposts on the road to Woyzeck’s self-destruction.
The main character’s insanity—made manifest in visions, drunkenness, and violence— ultimately undermines the production. What has made Woyzeck a lasting dramatic work, and a gateway to modernism, is the vague existentialism of the character’s crisis—he is both pauper and prophet, and his visions of a godless world, derived in part by mistreatment by the bourgeoisie, have a universal resonance. In Gold’s production, this condition is too diagnosed, too easily explained away as a byproduct of military service. Worse, since Büchner offers no symptoms specific to P.T.S.D. in his script, the production must generalize the very condition it aims to politicize, turning the soldier’s condition into madness-writ-large rather than a specific kind of “psychic wound,” as a recent New Yorker article on this very subject describes it.
The set, a pair of paper-maché mountaintops out of Night on Bald Mountain and a bed for the scenes with Woyzeck’s wife, come from another world altogether. They look like neither Iraq nor “Midwest America,” where the program claims the production takes place. If they are meant to conjure the metaphysical yearnings of Büchner’s protagonist, the American soldier in front of them only heightens the disjuncture between play and concept.
The actors win points for commitment, but their performances are necessarily general, as lifelessly energetic as a stump speech. Ryan Nicholoff, as Woyzeck, tries to convince us that choreographed screams, eye rolls, whistling, and stuttering are the sum of his character’s deadly paradigm shift. I wasn’t convinced. And besides, I was too busy watching the chorus, whose tuneful World World II-era harmonies and Andrews Sisters dance moves make the unaccountable interruptions of “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Bye Bye Baby” the most entertaining parts of the evening. If they’d been allowed a cabaret act all to themselves, the evening might have been more cohesive, or at least, unreservedly fun.
Woyzeck (70 min., no intermission)
Under St. Mark’s (94 St. Mark’s Place)
Performances: Through 10/29 (Tues & Wed 7pm)