Vaulting ambition

An Icelandic gymnast-turned-director puts Woyzeck through its paces.

TANKS FOR THE MEMORIES Ingvar E. Sigurðsson really dives into his role.

TANKS FOR THE MEMORIES Ingvar E. Sigurðsson really dives into his role. Photograph: Eddi

Iceland, with its absence of trees and austere lava landscape, doesn’t seem much like a spot to grow anything, much less a superstar director. But geysering out of the ground like so much pent-up steam, Gísli Örn Gardarsson has, with five recent shows, moved into theater’s most rarefied ranks. His current Woyzeck was commissioned by the Barbican in London; his Romeo and Juliet at the same venue had stars like Jude Law and Sean Connery clamoring for cameos; and his next project, Faust, will be his third collaboration with rockers Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. This week Gardarsson, 34, brings Woyzeck to BAM, and American audiences can see what Europe has been so hot and bothered about.

Woyzeck is a rite of passage for directors wanting to leave their stamp. Left unfinished in 1836, Georg Büchner’s drama predicted many of the expressionist gestures to come with its riotously violent story line and flights of anguished poetry. Gardarsson’s version takes the messy human story about the titular sweet-natured working man driven to distraction by a faithless woman and a parade of sadistic authority figures, and makes it even messier. Lovers don’t just hook up, they submerge in a giant glass tank. One of Woyzeck’s tormentors swings upside down, bellowing a Nick Cave song. The effect is part play, part rock show, and part party, which Gardarsson describes demurely as “an Icelandic energy.”

Gardarsson, videoconferencing from Iceland, where his two-year-old daughter gurgles in his lap, admits, “My career, it’s been really fast. I only graduated from drama school in 2001. I remember thinking that the only shame of going to school in Iceland is that I would never get to work abroad.” The secret to his rocketing success seems, paradoxically, to be a lack of artistic pedigree. Before starting studies, Gardarsson had seen, he estimates, “maybe two plays? It wasn’t a lot. But while I was studying Western European Thought—whatever that is—I started doing shows. It was fun. And I still try to recapture that spirit with my casts, partly so we’ll keep coming back.”

As a young man, Gardarsson was a nationally competitive gymnast (he says he gave it up for several reasons, some economic), and it is such physical training (rather than any highfalutin aesthetic) that informs his work. The Romeo and Juliet that made his reputation in England astounded audiences with its physicality and risk-taking. Juliet, for instance, appeared as Romeo’s “sun” in a literal sense, perching high above him in a hoop. “Because of my training, I know what a human body can do,” the director says. “And then we train intensively until the actors can do it too.”

Gardarsson’s other signature is insouciance. Again, in Romeo and Juliet, characters who lapsed into Icelandic would be chastised, “Speak fucking English!” Explains Gardarsson: “We had to have some way to explain our accents and apologize for the fact that the last time Icelanders were in town, we were Vikings dropping by to rape and pillage.”

In fact, Gardarsson’s vision tends to be so much manic fun that critics question if he is actually serving the play. At that, he rankles. “I stay really true to the story in everything I do, and I get upset when they say I’m not doing Woyzeck or Romeo and Juliet,” he maintains. “When people make tragedies, there is a danger of falling into monotone. But tragedy isn’t like that. In life, there are always moments of laughter: It’s a kind of colorful darkness. And hey! It’s not like my generation is flocking to the theater because it’s so entertaining. I think it’s okay if we play with it a little bit.”

Clearly, the director sees himself as an ombudsman for the new theatergoer. For his productions (including the upcoming Faust that he promises will be a “really massive rock show”), he hopes that audiences can “arrive as I do, having known so little about theater myself. I’m going to the theater too. I just do shows I want to see.”

Woyzeck is playing at the BAM Harvey Theater through Sat 18.