Chicago Cabaret Ensemble

at Latino Chicago Theater Company

In one powerful scene in Chicago Cabaret Ensemble’s Woyzeck a woman in a low-cut black dress stands center stage. Previously we have seen her cradling a red scarf as if it were a baby. A man in black stands behind her, only his green-gloved hands visible. The hands slowly wrap around her hands, then work their way up her arms until the fingers spread to frame her face. This action is repeated as the woman begins to resist, though hardly in earnest. Then the hands become more forceful, turning her body away from the audience and ultimately enveloping her entire head like a pair of enormous jaws. Yet the actors remain emotionally detached from the scene. While this is clearly a forced seduction, neither actor assumes a character. They simply execute the motions carefully, gracefully, like dancers, letting the gestures speak eloquently for themselves.

This kind of emblematic staging runs throughout director Warren Leming’s Woyzeck, which begins with a procession in silhouette led by a sword-wielding figure. Both the characters of Woyzeck (Charles Richards) and his wife Marie (Melissa Landis) appear at times with shadowy doubles (Jim Blanchette and Melissa Schubeck) who duplicate their gestures behind them. Employing a variety of Kabuki-like conventions, from black-hooded figures to percussive accompaniments to exaggerated vocal inflections, Leming has attempted to distill Georg Buchner’s unfinished masterpiece into a kind of mythic essence.

This approach certainly seems appropriate for exploring the furious brilliance of this play. Left as a series of relatively unconnected scenes when Buchner died of typhus at age 23, Woyzeck has been pieced together by various people over the years. It’s a grotesque tragedy, following the hapless Woyzeck as he’s pursued by the demons of society, nature, and his own curious disposition. His doctor places him on a strict diet of peas, apparently for no other reason than to see what the effect will be. The effect, unfortunately, is impotence, causing his wife Marie to seek her pleasure with the gallant Drum Major. The discovery of Marie’s infidelity pushes Woyzeck to murderous revenge, for in his eyes the world has fallen into disorder: “Why don’t you blow the sun out, God? Let everything fall over itself in lewdness. Flesh, filth, man, woman, human, animal–they all do it in the open day, do it on the back of a hand like flies.”

Critics have called Woyzeck the first modern play, largely because it anticipated by decades Ibsen’s use of the “common man” hero. Fragmentary though it is, Buchner’s text paints a remarkably full picture of a cruelly comic human condition, exhaustively dramatizing an ever-present angst, with neither science nor nature nor love offering a moral framework. The play’s fragmentary nature enhances this effect. With no center it appears as a series of caught glimpses, as if the master narrative that poststructuralist critics would describe more than a century after it was written had indeed fallen away, leaving only absurd islands of nonmeaning.

Tackling this play is obviously no easy trick. But this production would have been quite powerful had everything been captured with as much sophistication as the seduction scene, where the use of the horrible green gloves wonderfully illustrates the grotesque comedy of this all-too-pedestrian infidelity (in the original text Marie gives in by saying, “What’s it matter? It’s all one”). By only suggesting the huge emotions of the text, the actors invite us to complete the scene in our imaginations.

But much of the rest of the evening is characterized by a general lack of clarity, which prevents most scenes from crystallizing. Leming has discarded most of Buchner’s dialogue in favor of pure stage imagery, but the images tend to lack emotional or visual complexity. In one scene Woyzeck is apparently pursuing Marie; she stands across the stage from him, and as he walks toward her she takes a few steps upstage. Woyzeck stops, apparently confused or hurt as if he doesn’t know where she’s gone, until a hooded figure gestures for him to cross to Marie’s new position. He does, and the process starts over again. Not only is this staging unsophisticated, but the theatrical logic contradicts everything else in the play. If this is a production in which the actors are actors first and characters second, then there’s no reason for one actor to “lose sight” of another.

Curiously, Leming isolates his actors in almost every scene. In Buchner’s opening scene Woyzeck is sitting with a fellow soldier discussing his paranoid delusions about a Freemason conspiracy against him. This soldier’s empathetic responses to Woyzeck’s ravings seem intended to invite the audience to feel for this horribly tormented man. But in Leming’s production Woyzeck stands alone onstage, ranting and laughing diabolically.

As a result, Woyzeck appears without a context and remains so throughout the evening. He becomes unreadable, except as a series of nonsequiturs. Since he has little to react against, the audience can’t watch him make choices–and the fundamental moral questions of the play become moot.

Our ability to enter into the world of the play is further inhibited by Leming’s lighting design. A large wall of paper screens at the back of the stage is lighted from behind, allowing Leming to create beautiful silhouettes. Unfortunately this puts most of the action in the dark, and no one in the cast has the physical or vocal flexibility or expressiveness to compensate for that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/L. Weathered.