No-Win Productions presents the World Premiere of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, FJF
New Ohio Theater, February 28 – March 21 (closed)
Adapted by Jeremy Duncan Pape and D.L. Siegel
Directed by Jeremy Duncan Pape.
Cast: James Kautz, Alessandro Colla, Evangeline Fontaine, Mackenzie Knapp, Isreal McKinney Scott and Jason Wilson.
Production team: Alfred Schatz (Set Design), Evan Roby (Lighting Design), Lux Haac (Costume Design), Jeanne Travis (Sound Design), Serena Miller (Vocal Arrangement), Zach Serafin (Props) and Kayla Tate (Production Stage Manager).
Georg Büchner (1813 – 1837), in Germany, is considered one of the nation’s greatest writers, and their most prestigious literary prize is named after him. However, productions of his plays are rare in this country, most likely to be found on university and college campuses—even during the bicentenary of his birth in 2013. That is why I was so especially keen to see the No-Win Productions’ staging of his most famous play, Woyzeck, in Jeremy Duncan Pape’s adaptation, entitled Woyzeck, FJF (the protagonist’s initials).
There was much to enjoy in this production, above all the intelligence and theatricality of Pape’s adaptation, and James Kautz’s winning, humane performance as Woyzeck. This was an uncharacteristic infiltration of traditional acting into a presentation based largely on the “postdramatic theater” of Heiner Müller, Franz Castorf, Robert Wilson, and Richard Foreman, in which the actors avoid the illusionism and empathetic effects of realistic theater in favor of a raw, direct engagement with the audience, reminiscent of cabaret and the circus. The shortcomings of the entertainment mostly came from performances which failed realize just how difficult this non-acting is to bring off. It’s no easier than Stanislavsky, and it requires the perfect costuming, makeup, and timing of a first-rate clown act.
Another tenet of post-dramatic theater is its relativistic view of the playwright’s text. No-Win claimed that this performance changed the story and the situation, but used only words from Büchner’s script—not all of them, it was clear, but those that were included were repeated over and over again, as the Drum-Major, the Doctor, and Marie returned to the stage, creating a hallucinatory effect, as if the action on stage were all in Woyzeck’s mind, as indeed they were. The producers’ announcement stated, “Georg Büchner’s modern classic Woyzeck has been radically re-imagined as the haunting story of a condemned man desperate to uncover the truth in a dangerous world.” When we think of condemned, we assume that Woyzeck is facing execution like his real-life model, who was beheaded for murdering his mistress, and at one point in the evening we are inclined to think that Marie’s infidelities and the murder actually happened and are rolling through the condemned perpetrator’s mind like waves. However, when the doctor reminds Woyeck that “it will all soon be over,” he means not a guillotine, but the needles of a lobotomist. Woyzeck is mad. The primary action takes place entirely in a mental ward, so the obvious is true, or is at least likely to be true, and the factuality of the situations that pass through Woyzeck’s mind are cast into doubt. Mr. Pape managed all this deftly, although in order to accomplish this, he did away with many of Büchner’s secondary characters, like Marie’s girlfriend Magreth, and makes Andres a constant presence on stage as Woyzeck’s cellmate. The poor fellow is even given the unpleasant task of eating nothing but peas, which is Woyzeck’s lot in the original version. Special praise is also due to Isreal McKinney Scott for his haunting portrayal of Andres.
James Kautz’s Woyzeck also differs from the Wozzeck we know and love from Alban Berg’s opera in that his ailments or shortcomings in body and mind seem normal for the most part, and we identify with them, rather than finding ourselves distanced from a mentally limited, hallucinating character from the very lowest stratum of society—a person who might well end up as the subject of a study or a series of experiments. The Woyzeck given us by Pape and Kautz is a contemporary Everyman, unlike Büchner’s downtrodden proletarian.
I can’t say that I savored every moment and every detail of Woyzeck, FJF, but I feel rewarded for having seen it, and many of its richest moments came to me after the performance was over—which is only a credit to Jeremy Duncan Pape and his talented collaborators.
A distancing of the adaptor, the director, the actors, and the audience from the playwright’s text is a canon of Müllerian aesthetic so popular among young American theater-makers, but it is especially easy to justify in Büchner’s Woyzeck, which survived the author’s early demise as little more than random sheets of paper, badly faded at that, with some material destroyed in the attempt to make them legible through chemical treatment in the late nineteenth century.
Audiences had a rare opportunity to enjoy Heinrich von Kleist’s Penthesilea this past summer in the Irish novelist John Banville’s brilliant adaptation—which was considerably altered from the original, abridged to about half the length of the original. In a way this play, another posthumous rediscovery, was incomplete in a theatrical sense, since Kleist had never gone through the process of preparing his text for production. It is worth remembering this production in the context of Woyzeck, since Kleist stands together with Büchner as father of the great anticlassical, anti-Goethean stream in German drama, as Mr. Banville observed in an interview I conducted with him about Penthesilea. The Bard Penthesilea was quite different in intention and aesthetic from Woyzeck FJF, but both productions brought home their power as the sources of modern German drama, as created by the Expressionists, Brecht, Müller, and others.
Listen to John Banville’s interview here.