If looks could kill . . . Photo by Thai Chau
If looks could kill . . . Photo by Thai Chau

Not Quite By the Buchner

Franz hears voices. No surprise: He's poor, in a crumbling marriage, humiliated daily at work, treated by a quack doctor, and lacks family, spiritual advisors or any semblance of a healthy support system.

So, as the voices escalate and he begins suspecting his wife's infidelity, Franz resorts to that most ancient of marital problem-solvers: He slices her throat.

And that's where Re: Woyzeck, Jeremy Gable's chaotically assembled—but always interesting—spin of Georg Büchner's 19th-century play Woyzeckbegins. For the next 75 minutes, those who know Franz—including himself, his creator and re-animator, and even the actor who portrays him—weigh in on why he really did it and what it all means.

Büchner wrote only three plays before his death at age 23. And Woyzeck, his last, unfinished play, is rightly seen as a primary, if not positively prescient, work of modernistic literature. Its disillusioned view of morality and ambiguous sense of truth, its attack on bourgeois social values through the subtly complex psychology of a man driven mad by conventional society rather than Satan's minions or his beastly nature, and its fragmented, cinema-like structure seem far closer to the 20th century than the nationalistic zeitgeistof 1830s Germany. It's far more Randall Patrick McMurphy and Rashomonthan G.F.W. Hegel or Faust.

So it's no surprise it took 77 years after Buchner's 1837 death for the rest of the world to catch up and actually produce Woyzeck. Today, it's theatrical catnip to experimental, literate theater practitioners. Makes sense: What better way to attempt to justify your own insane decision to work in the increasingly marginalized medium of theater than to tackle a play written by one of the standard bearers of artistic genius cruelly neglected?

But Gable's Re: Woyzeckdoesn't attempt to ride Buchner's coattails through simply adapting or conceptualizing the source material: It's a heady, novel and often bewildering leap that examines nothing less profound than the nature of tragedy—both onstage and off—and the distressing present-day deterioration of personal ethics and civic responsibility.

In its best moments, thanks in large part to Kelly Flynn's subdued, black-box staging and Mark Coyan's compelling, multilayered turn as the tortured Franz Woyzeck, Re: Woyzeckis a moving, richly poetic story of a man lost in his own world. Failed continually by institutions supposed to provide purpose or meaning—science, government, the church, family—Franz sinks into a quagmire of existential crisis. And it's not reading too much into Gable's words to infer that Franz's dark night of the soul and the irrational choices it spawns parallel those of personalities as varied as Theodore Kaczynski and Seung-Hui Cho—as well as the country that cultivated each of their brands of madness.

But Gable's big ideas and earnest desire to say something important are muddled by an apparent unwillingness to harness his frenetic imagination in order to serve the greater purpose his play tantalizingly offers: forcing spectators to wonder how in the fuck people wind up so incredibly hopeless, and how the rest of us can just sit by and watch it happen.

It's almost as if Gable doesn't trust his own play to tell its story. Why else introduce such jarring, intrusive elements as self-serving authors and radio talk-show hosts, a bizarre Elmer Fudd channeling, a video representation of himself, and even a giant chicken? The incongruities, quirky observations and heavy-handed take on the media exploitation of human drama wind up detracting from a potentially outstanding statement about quiet desperation transforming into murderous rage and the inability to truly connect with those we love most.

But there's still enough to Re: Woyzeckto signal that a good, possibly great, play exists in the jumbled mix. It's fresh, rarely predictable and errs only by trying to say too much—a far more laudable flaw in the theater than saying nothing worth hearing. So here's hoping that this initial production is merely the first step in a process that winds up being very rewarding for one of Orange County's most genuinely innovative theatrical minds.

Re: Woyzeck at the Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (724) 680-6803. Thurs.-Sat., June 28-30, 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. $15-$18.


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