Theater on Campus: Woyzeck

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See it! Woyzeck, a production of Columbia Stages, runs from March 28 to April 1 at the Riverside Theater, 91 Claremont Avenue at 120th Street. Free with a Columbia ID!

is a tragic masterpiece penned by the brilliant German intellectual Georg Buchner, who before his death from typhus in 1837—only 23 years old—founded a revolutionary society, was convicted of high treason, staged a daring international escape, completed a doctoral dissertation, published three plays and two translations of plays by Victor Hugo, wrote several philosophical essays and an unfinished novel, earned a position as an Anatomy Lecturer at the medical school in Zurich, romanced his fiancee, endured a strained relationship with his father (including a period when he was kept under virtual house arrest) and, for good measure, wrote a series of unordered dramatic fragments in an almost unintelligible hand that became this excellent play.

The story is a cautionary tale (based on a true story) about a soldier, Woyzeck, who goes insane after participating in a scientific experiment, for which he eats nothing but peas for three months. He starts to hear voices and seeks help. The doctor who supervises the study tells him to keep eating. His captain tells him to stick to his station. His girlfriend, who works as a prostitute and looks after their baby, has enough on her mind. Woyzeck resolves the situation by slicing her to pieces in a dramatic and bloody finale.

The glory of this play is its surreal pacing, wonderfully accentuated by the creative and dramatic direction of Marike Splint. It seems as though it could have been written in 1937, or perhaps 2037: scenes comes and go without any real explanation, time seems to slow down and speed up, characters offer prophecies to no one in particular, the infant is a constant brooding presence. Sex and violence and words unsaid hang heavy in almost every scene.

In particular, a nook in one side of the stage, little more than a staircase, is transformed into the worn home of a fretful single mother and her baby with the addition of a crib and a small wooden box. It lurks like an omen at one side of the stage.

The acting is uniformly strong. Teddy Bergman offers a pathetic, moving Woyzeck; Blythe Foster a voluptuous Marie, the prostitute girlfriend full of life to give, to receive, and to lose; Gwynne Flanagan a domineering monomaniacal researcher loaded with sex and ambition; and Cobey Mandarino a thrusting Captain, with a Rumsfeldian certainty born of ego and ignorance. Drew Hirshfield and Kraig Kehrer are leering, crippled barkers in the best tradition of untrustworthy showmen. Elizabeth Dahmen, Kate LoConti, Stephanie Shipp, Peter Allen Stone, and Scott Sweatt are The Idiot, Margaret, The Child, The Drum Major, and Andres respectively — all well done.

Finally, the lighting, music and technical production must be mentioned. The first is stark and frightening, the second disorienting and grinding, just as one wants; and the last precise, dramatic and, so far as I could tell, flawless.

Now, avant-garde theater from 1836 may not be to everyone’s taste. The plot, like the prostitute’s room discussed above, requires a lot of imagination. The characters, as one might expect in a work pieced together from posthumous fragments, are less than fully formed. There were a flew slips on opening night: in particular, one character appeared briefly to forgot some lines. Apotheosis is asking too much of Woyzeck, but considering the price of admission for Columbia students this is an aesthetic bargain.

– Bob Neer

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