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Having seen several recent productions of Georg Buechner's cryptic drama Woyzeck, I still cannot understand the fascination it holds for young directors. Buechner died at 23 in 1837. He left behind, among other writings, a jumbled, partly illegible manuscript of an unfinished play based on the real-life case of Johann Christian Woyzeck, an army barber executed in 1824 for the murder of his mistress. The order of scenes in this manuscript is indeterminate; some scenes are mere fragments. The ending of the play is unclear. The dialogue in both the German original and most translations borders on psychotic gibberish.
Perhaps the play's appeal has to do with the success of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck (whose title, incidentally, is a misspelling arising from an editor's error). Certainly Berg's music gives the Buechner work a substance it lacks as a play. On the other hand, the original version has a certain power about it that derives at least in part from its starkness. I have an uneasy feeling that it would be much less appealing to young directors (and audiences) had Buechner lived to finish it and polish the rough edges.
John Lithgow, who directs the present production, played the Doctor in a Woyzeck at Princeton this summer, and the Harvard Dramatic Club staged another Woyzeck right here in Cambridge this August. The current one does little to ease my own reservations about Buechner's so-called masterpiece.
As an admirer of Lithgow's work in Harvard theatre, I am both surprised and pained to have to list a number of serious defects in his latest effort. Let me say, however, that there is much good in this Woyzeck (including Ken Tigar's free translation) and much that sparkles with directorial ingenuity. But there is also much that is bad--obviously bad--and if it is not the director's fault directly, it is still his responsibility.
First, Woyzeck, is cursed by some very bad acting. Paul Balmuth, the lead, has not much business being on the Loeb mainstage. His range of expressiveness is disastrously limited; his voice is pathetically inadequate; his mosquito-like dartings back and forth across the stage grow quite irritating after a while. When he plays to his mistress, Marie, he looks and acts like a little boy; with the Doctor, he seems completely unconcerned to be the victim of a deranged experimenter; with the Drum Major (when he ought to be dead drunk, incidentally, and not stone sober) his "Let's be friends" sounds like Mickey Mouse addressing Black Pete. Quite apart from the debate as to whether Woyzeck should be a clod destroyed by a wicked society or a sensitive young man destroyed by society period, this Woyzeck could not be what the author had in mind.
In fact there is only one outstandingly good performance from Lithgow's cast, and that is turned in by Laurence Senelick, who creates a Doctor, half Caligari, half Hackenbusch and all genius. I only hope he will work out better make-up and get to look less like an albino wolfman. Mary Moss makes a good Marie, and a very pretty one, but she swallows what should be her most moving lines--those addressed to an unforgiving God.
Robert Edgar is badly miscast as the Captain, who clearly should be fat, stupid, and cruel, not thin as a rail, witty, and effeminate. He does what he does well, but it isn't what he should do. Roger Zim looks the part of the Drum Major who woos Marie, and he has a marvelously deep voice, but his braggadocio is too much a conscious parody of Anthony Quinn or the Marlboro Man; it draws laughs for that reason, but it is not right.
[N.B.--I have no sympathy for members of the audience who hissed the rough (but wholly unharming) treatment given a live cat in one scene; it is a superb cat and doubtless can go at least eight more performances.]
So much for acting. The lighting is execrable throughout, being never much more than a subdued murkiness that kills most of the excitement of Lithgow's wonderfully staged crowd scenes. The music is strange, not, I suspect, completely because it was composed that way. The pace of many big scenes (all of those in the inn, for example) is nowhere near the feverish tempo that should drive Woyzeck to final destruction. And the timing of small bits is often fuzzy, so that Woyzeck's knifing of Marie, for instance, is only feebly chilling.
I am sure some of these failures will be corrected tonight. I wish all of them could be, for Woyzeck, despite its ambiguity and confusion can make an interesting evening's entertainment.
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