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Woyzeck at Oracle Theatre | Theater review

Director Max Truax stages a stunning version of Buchner’s unfinished classic.

Sean Patrick Ward and Stephanie Polt in Oracle Theatre's Woyzeck

The great German playwright Buchner died at the age of 23, just before completing Woyzeck, a 19th-century play that spoke prophetically to 20th-century horror; it’s long been considered the first tragedy of the working man. Sarah Kane famously directed a production of Woyzeck in London; her spare, stark plays are indebted to this expressionistic drama of nihilism.

Truax has shaped a stunning imagistic vision from Buchner’s play. In less than 90 minutes, Truax renders the writer’s tone of dread and inevitability through arresting visual collage and a bold soundscape (artfully designed by Leon Rothenberg). In a brilliant bit of staging, the set is two-tiered; as much takes place below as on the raised stage. Only Woyzeck (Ward) is trapped above ground at all times.That he cannot penetrate the trap doors, nor see what’s below him, makes manifest his alienation. In fact, each fragment of Buchner’s play has been so carefully and specifically rendered by Truax that I felt this was the first time I’ve really seen and understood this oft-produced play. Buchner deliberately set scenes outdoors, insisting that nature can be as oppressive as civil institutions; Truax captures this beautifully through the creepy pastoral scenes projected on the wall behind the actors.

In another bit of vivid staging, the director heightens the lovemaking scene between Marie (played with fierce intensity by Polt) and the drum major (Errico) by bringing on four additional women in red. The effect is an echoing and heightening of Marie’s sensuality and Woyzeck’s tragedy. This recurs in the death scene: As if in slow motion, Woyzeck kills the multiple figures of Marie; we watch as Marie, beneath the stage, feels each blow. It is a haunting and visually captivating moment of composition. “Everyone is an abyss; if you look down far enough you get dizzy,” Woyzeck tells Marie. Truax’s portrait of this iconic play is both dizzying and illuminating; one feels privileged to look down.

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