Woyzeck

At Agents Theatre August 10-30, 28-06

God forbid Woyzeck should be Tim Mayer's last show at Harvard. Still, if it is, he's ended his extra-curricular career with a hit, and made the first season of the Harvard Summer School Players all the more memorable for it.

Mayer's Woyzeck is a veritable diamond in the rough: the set looks unfinished, the lighting is often unfortunately absent, the stage hands scramble conspicuously for the props during scene transitions, sometimes the actors don't seem aware that other actors are on stage with them. But it doesn't matter. When all is said and done, Woyzeck is an exciting and a fascinating show, one which transcends its technical handicaps easily. The best in it is Mayer's best and that's saying plenty.

Woyzeck itself is a 19th century tragedy by George Buchner. Although many of the lines and the occurrences in its twenty-nine scenes are ambiguous and open to varied interpretation, it's pretty clear that Buchner was a social critic who didn't like what society was doing to mankind. Woyzeck himself is the guinea pig used by the characters Buchner hated: most specifically, the army represented by a vicous and stupid Captain, and misguided science, represented by a hack doctor. Because of economic pressure, Woyzeck must allow himself to be exploited in order to live. His sanity rests on his faith in Marie, the mother of his illegitimate child. When she betrays him, Woyzeck goes slowly insane, kills her, and is immediately condemned by society for the crime.

As an interpretation of Woyzeck, all this is drastically oversimplified; I can hear Tim Mayer and his cast laughing already. However, the mood of the play is one of total futility of existence. And this Mayer has captured economically by using a revolving set (designed by Clayton Koelb) pushed by Woyzeck and other characters in changing from scene to scene. At worst, the unpolished mechanics of the revolve made for some visually awkward scene transitions in the first act. But most of the time, especially when Woyzeck did the pushing, the slow turning of the set neatly captured the hopelessness of Woyzeck's life.

Considering that Woyzeck was selected, cast, staged, and opened in something short of two weeks, Mayer has done an extraordinary job with the staging. Concentrating most of his efforts on the set-pieces (the long, crowded scenes in the tavern), he lets his talented cast fend for themselves in the shorter dialogue scenes with little blocking to guide them. The balance is really nice, particularly in the second half when Woyzeck becomes a blend of introspective horror, and Mayerian theatricality.

Oh What A Lovely War and The Bacchae made it quite clear that the best acting in Cambridge this Summer was at Agassiz. Woyzeck is perfectly cast. Tom Babe, his voice lowered an octave, plays Woyzeck as if he were a tormented animal. I thought at first that he was too powerful in the opening scenes, but the performance continued to build skillfully in intensity. Babe is great with props; whenever his hand touches the butcher's knife, you can't take your eyes off him.

Joan Tolentino gives Marie a depth-of-character the part needs. She sings, too. In the character roles, Andrew Weil and Dean Gitter are wonderful as the captain and the doctor respectively. Weil doubles as a circus barker and recites a double-talk speech about a performing horse, with all the necessary self-consciousness. Gitter makes the play's ending every bit as ghastly as it should be.

Peter Weil as the Drum Major and Carl Nagin as Woyzeck's friend Andres work in their parts more out of physical presence than anything else. Mayer has, on occasion, underdirected his actors: Nagin seems to be playing more to himself than to Babe, and James Shuman's monologue sounds more like an exercise in dialogue modulation than the barroom philosophy it should be.

Michael Tschudin wrote the un-Alban-Bergian but thoroughly appropriate score. He played it on piano and organ, accompanied by a beautiful blonde flute player from Juilliard reputed to be his girlfriend.