Piecing together Woyzeck

Last week, the School of Drama produced a version of Gregor Büchner’s Woyzeck in Purnell’s Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater. Woyzeck is a difficult play to produce; no one knows what order the scenes go in or whether it’s even finished. Playwright Karl Georg Büchner died at the age of 23 in 1837, and Woyzeck was discovered in a locked desk 40 years later.

In the play, Franz Woyzeck is a soldier performing menial tasks to support his mistress Marie (junior Jessica Waxman) and their bastard child. On the doctor’s orders, Woyzeck only eats peas for months, decaying his mental and physical health. Marie begins an affair with the drum major, and Woyzeck murders Marie after discovering her betrayal.

There were many aspects of the show that seemed to contradict this socially progressive plot. Instead of condoning social revolutions and challenging imperialism and government authority, this show seemed to get stuck in a swamp of gender and racial issues.

In the show, Woyzeck was the only non-Caucasian character. Director Dan Rigazzi, a master’s student, made this casting decision in order to portray the injustice against blacks in the 1950s. The parallels between a colonial society and a racist one are certainly valid, but this approach seemed to depreciate Büchner’s socially progressive, or Marxist, message. Like many racially conscious plays, the story of Woyzeck quickly turned binary, portraying an oversimplified version of Büchner’s intent.

Woyzeck is a tragic character because he is partly responsible for his downfall. Woyzeck is powerful because it denotes all of its characters as participants in the same society — many cogs in one purposeless wheel. It manifests the illusions of society and questions the very institutions that mankind subscribes to. This concept was beautifully demonstrated by the dialogue created by the double-casting of junior Barrett Davis as the doctor and pawnbroker. To protect his own interests, the doctor manipulates Woyzeck to lash out against his loved ones. The same actor provides Woyzeck the knife to murder Marie. The pawnbroker does well to summarize the play in a single line, “It’s all nothing? Well, it’s all money.”

From the first beat, Woyzeck is depicted as both insane and a murderer. The audience never sees his struggle against the power systems or his inner debate over the value of a man, his own morality, and his rightful place. Woyzeck is immediately dismissed as mentally ill and thus became an unreliable protagonist. If there had been a more obvious progression into insanity, the audience might have seen the forces that drove Woyzeck to kill his only love in life. There was also no compassion between Woyzeck and Marie. Woyzeck’s rage was not justified, because the audience could not understand the magnitude of his loss or the intensity of the betrayal. While senior Larry Powell’s performance was riveting and passionate, his motives were not clear.

Some of Woyzeck’s actions and lines often raised gender issues. Marie’s lustful intrigue, the drum major, was meant to objectify her, yet Woyzeck seemed to do the same. In the English translation used for last week’s show, for example, Woyzeck constantly called Marie a bitch. The translation also focused on Marie’s moral struggles more than Woyzeck’s. Overall, the female characters were portrayed as promiscuous deviants, central to Woyzeck’s downfall. The direction failed to recognize that Marie was misled by these same forces as Woyzeck. She is supposed to be a victim — not a villain.

Though the production may have misinterpreted Marie’s role in the story, the disjointed scenes were composed in a sensible way that successfully furthered the plot — quite a feat considering the ambiguity of the original text. Additionally, the design of the show was an impeccable display of craft and creativity. The set, lighting, costumes, and sound seamlessly worked together to communicate the world of the play and transport the audience.