Avant-gardists have always been drawn to Woyzeck, and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, it was unfinished when its German author, Georg Büchner, died young of typhus in 1837. Some scenes look like fragments, some may’ve been rejects, and there’s no clear indication of their order, so an experimenter has plenty of room to mess around.
It’s also as dark as can be. Based on a sensational crime of the period, Woyzeck follows the unraveling of a soldier who, driven crazy by poverty and powerlessness, kills the mother of his infant child. The piece is full of biting social satire—with blackly comic, over-the-top scenes of powerful assholes abusing the hapless antihero—and constitutes a blueprint for pretty much all of Bertolt Brecht, parts of Waiting for Godot, and Monty Python at its nastiest.
This spring, six Chicago theaters and an opera company have banded together to present the Woyzeck Project, a festival anchored by two shows running now at the Chopin Theatre: About Face Theatre’s premiere production of Pony by Sylvan Oswald, which tosses a few Büchnerian elements into a contemporary story about transgender identity, and Woyzeck itself, as adapted and directed by Sean Graney for the Hypocrites. In addition to sharing a venue and a starting point, the two productions employ the same set, sound, lighting, and prop designers.
The Hypocrites give us Büchner’s story straight up. Franz Woyzeck hardly ever sees his lover, Marie, because he’s constantly working humiliating side jobs to supplement his military pay. One, as a subject in a science experiment, may actually be designed to drive him nuts, and he’s starting to experience nightmarish hallucinations. Eventually Marie takes up with another guy. When Woyzeck catches on, he leads her out to the woods and kills her. Graney’s adaptation steals text from various parts of the original to cobble together a narrator of sorts—a knowing, sinister figure who appears to Woyzeck at times, tipping him off to Marie’s infidelity and giving him confirmation, with a raised eyebrow, of his doom.
Graney and his crack ensemble tease out the play’s humor, pathos, and terror. Scenes in which Woyzeck is tormented by his bosses, Captain Hauptmann and the mad scientist called Herr Doktor, are played broadly and expertly for laughs. But, in a remarkable choice, Geoff Button is allowed to project kindness and intelligence as Woyzeck. From his first scene, he comes across as a grounded, decent, sweet guy who just happens to be losing his marbles.
The production design is similarly bold. In a brilliant stroke by sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, the cacophony in Woyzeck’s head—buzzing insects, a wheezing baby’s cry, the beating of his own heart—is produced by the other actors, who become a kind of choral, oral Foley artist. And everyday objects develop into powerful symbols: An oblong rock, for instance, represents Woyzeck and Marie’s baby—until it becomes a weapon.
Graney’s most potent image is a simple can of peas. Herr Doktor’s experiment requires Woyzeck to eat nothing but peas for months, and throughout the play, even as he listens to Marie’s dying sobs, Franz keeps spooning them into his mouth. It doesn’t occur to him to break the habit of obedience.
About Face’s Pony is similarly accomplished, with outstanding performances throughout. But Oswald’s play ultimately disappoints. The eponymous character is a woman who blows into town passing as a man. Pony takes up with Marie, who—in the play’s closest connection to Woyzeck—is obsessed with a recent crime of passion in the woods: Another woman named Marie was stabbed to death there by a jealous lover. Oswald’s Marie says she wants to know, to experience, the murderer’s state of mind. Everyone in the piece has cards they play close to the vest, mostly having to do with gender. But Marie’s obsession remains a mystery until the end, and then it doesn’t add up. Her craziness comes across as a stock device.
There are plenty of other problems. Late in the action, Pony acquires an annoying tendency to state the play’s themes in essay-like monologues. Another character, a therapist, takes a turn towards violence that doesn’t seem in tune with the person we’ve known to that point. And Marie apparently turns completely sane in the play’s last moments.
Oswald’s dialogue is smart, though, and the play offers a sweet scene between Pony and a young queer man, Heath, who’s come looking for her. Kelli Simpkins’s Pony and Matthew Sherbach’s Heath are absolutely endearing. Director Bonnie Metzgar gives the script’s every nuance time to breathe, for better and also for worse: If the pace were quicker, the holes in the script might be less noticeable.