Watch the Little Man Be Destroyed

woyzeck-bamIcelandic theater director Gisli Orn Gardarsson has brought a very dark, very disturbing production of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck to BAM's 2008 Next Wave Festival. Of course Woyzeck, written in German in 1836, assembled after the author's death, published in 1879, and first staged in 1913, is a famously brooding work, considered by many the first truly modernist play. In 25 or so short scenes depicting a kind of everyman's destruction, Büchner captured the abysmal state of poverty and powerlessness experienced by many in his time. But this weird, expressionistic narrative of dominance, cruelty, jealousy, and betrayal has continued to seem relevant.Perhaps each generation finds its own Woyzeck. This one is set in a nightmare of huge industrial pipes with no clear product other than the dark and menacing atmosphere that Woyzeck runs through during his daily tasks. He is the archetypal little man caught up in the big machine. He is pure victim.

The Icelandic acting company, performing most effectively in English, is dressed in a melange of styles, ranging from versions of Men in Black to classic Disney (Woyzeck's girlfriend Marie looks like a streetwalking version of Snow White in her blue, yellow and red little dress, with its flirty skirt, and her red high heels). Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have written a pulsating rock score with plenty of passion and aggression.

The singing is powerful, as is the use of stunt wires on which characters fly from above into the scene, or get strung up as Woyzeck does early on, like a piece of dangling meat in a butcher shop. And this is the image that stays in one's mind: lowly man as a pathetic piece of meat, caught up in the grinder of larger powers -- whether they be military (the Captain and the Drum Major) or capitalist, as seems to be the case with the chorus of men in black, decked out in their suits and dark glasses, performing unknown services for powerful clients. Büchner's tavern becomes a disco nightclub, where the rock-star-like drum major seduces Marie.

The aggressive music and the ugly and oppressive set express Gardarsson's image of a world gone utterly foul, where violence is both casual and constant, where there is no exit, and where a simple, low-status man will be ground down into homicidal rage. The atmosphere is stygian both physically and spiritually. It makes for powerful theater, no question, and Gardarsson is talented.

Yet ultimately one feels like the production is an assault on the audience, a punch in the face that cries out, Look! This is the world. It is dark, it is bleak, it is hopeless. On an economic and environmental level, that may seem all too true these days. But this fierce pessimism makes the work a serious downer. My theater companion left about fifteen minutes before the conclusion, as a mob was beating the supine Woyzeck on the head again and again in a sadistic and apparently unprovoked attack. She just couldn't take any more of the violence.

I am generally a fan of the edgy, the dark, the bleak. I particularly like the paintings of Max Beckmann and Lucian Freud and tend to loathe the pretty and the sentimental, whether on canvas or stage. But even I had to ask myself what exactly I had experienced during 90 minutes of pure, raw aggression. There is, to be sure, some amazingly theatrical work on view, especially late in the play when large water tanks appear and various characters swim through them backlit. The effect is stunning and magical. But by this time, we are so steeped in the horrors of modern human existence that the final dying starts to seem gratuitously drawn out. We are tired by then of the sufferings of Woyzeck. There is, alas, no catharsis.

Only three performances of this ambitious production are scheduled at BAM. I would certainly go see Gardarsson's work again. But I can't help wondering if those incredibly long, dark Icelandic winters haven't adversely affected Gardarsson's vision.- Victoria Sullivan


Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.