Lit by Lightning

Watching Infernal Bridegroom Productions' presentation of Woyzeck is something like sitting through church: it's hard to do, but you feel good about it later. Written in 1836 by a man dying of typhoid fever, Woyzeck defies all the rules of classical theater: there is no noble hero, no clear sense of story and the play lacks a connection with reality. So much the better for Houston theatergoers, and for Infernal Bridegroom -- a group that clearly takes pleasure in making madly dangerous drama. Woyzeck collapses any respectable notions of theater. Nothing will happen as you expect it to, but the ride is well worthwhile.

German playwright Georg Buchner, who died at 23, based Woyzeck on a murder case in which a strangely possessed soldier slew his mistress after becoming exasperated with her sleeping around. An avid student of philosophy, science and literature, Buchner, who had no training in theater, was ahead of his time; his work is surprisingly post-modern. The central result is that his play lacks a driving narrative, so watching Woyzeck can be something like suffering brief shocks of enlightenment through lightning bolts.

Set outside in the Zocalo Compound against a purple summer sky, the play's action encompasses the audience arena style. On one side, Mike Scranton's welded bridges and arcs to nowhere create an industrial space that canopies the play's wildly vacillating changes of scene, which go from military exercise to circus sideshow. A balcony is fashioned much the same way, with a wickedly flimsy set of stairs leading upward. On the opposite side of the compound, a pile of hay designates the only other discrete space the actors use.

The large cast is separated into a variety of character groups. Woyzeck, a wretchedly confused soldier, is generally connected to the action, and it's nearly everyone's purpose to make a fool of him. His former mistress, the dark-haired Marie, has no interest in him and sleeps with his commanding officer despite the child she's had with Woyzeck. Though aware of her betrayal, Woyzeck holds himself to a higher moral code and tries to earn money to support his offspring. One way he raises funds is to allow himself to be a lab rat for a doctor, who feeds him a steady diet of peas and then examines his urine; Woyzeck gets raises according to how interesting his samples are, though his limited menu occasionally makes it difficult for him to produce the necessary fluids.

As played by Greg Dean, Woyzeck is a tense mass of terror, chastised for having a brain: "You think too much!" screams his captain. Anyone who's been under the boot can understand Woyzeck's moral dilemma when shaving this fat pansy of a commanding officer. In one clear moment, when Greg Stanley as the captain is wrapped in his shaving towel, Woyzeck brandishes a knife behind the barber's chair, desperate to slash his superior's throat. The irony, BYchner points out, is that Woyzeck is the superior physical specimen. In a segue to another scene, the captain bemoans Woyzeck's long limbs: "He makes me so nervous," whinnies the captain. "He looks like a spider running away from his own shadow."

Of all Woyzeck's paranoias, his fear of freemasons is the cause of the most laughter. With his ear to the ground, he stiffens and his eyes widen: "Freemasons! Under the ground!" Despite his rantings, Woyzeck is a thinking soldier, and he knows something is wrong when he sees heads rolling on the grass. In his romantic railings against society, religion and his general state of affairs, the soldier is often lucid enough to have impact: "Everything is so hard and fixed, so gloomy!"

When Buchner died, Woyzeck was still a work in progress. Though he had written a large number of scenes, they were jumbled; their order was unclear from his notebooks. So the problem in directing this play is making sense out of a string of seemingly senseless moments. It's also the intellectually energetic part of Woyzeck -- because layers of myth and psychology are embedded in short dialogue and quick bits of action, the people sitting in Zocalo's movie house seats are unlikely to experience the play in exactly the same way. Dean moves fluidly between unrelated moments in a fog of paranoia, fear and anger, cutting into his own train of thought. What the audience can share is a measure of delight in the skillfully rendered characters: Jim Parsons as the piss-obsessed doctor and Andy Nelson as a circus barker being among the most clever. With his epileptic-like discomfort, Dean's Woyzeck sets the standard for a production full of twitching performances: Parsons twitches with the same obscene jerk each time he records Woyzeck's vitals, and Nelson is a grotesque barker, smooth and evil with a shock of bright pink hair.

Though the play has no center, much of Woyzeck's anxiety can be traced back to Marie, who views the tattered man only from her balcony, mocking that other famous balcony scene between two young lovers. Woyzeck isn't a Romeo; he comes to express his tortured ideas, his fear of a gloomy and fixed world. And Marie isn't a Juliet; she doesn't care, at least not while Woyzeck's standing in front of her. Amy Bruce gives Marie just the right measure of callousness, a feat made difficult because her character is too often a simple reflection of sin, with lust and greed figuring prominently.

Live music threads through Infernal Bridegroom's production in the form of a vaguely organized marching band. Dressed in leftover uniforms, the musicians move about the staging area with as much alacrity as the actors, and in one especially clear moment, a fiddler steps forward to underline Woyzeck's failure in relating to his offspring. The band also contributes to the circus setting, filing under Marie's balcony and playing wistful lullabies for the drunks and prostitutes.

The music is a source of pain for Woyzeck, who knows it accompanies Marie's dancing. Having succumbed to the pressures of the voices in his head and the general misery of his life, Woyzeck commits a murder with the kind of follow-through the rest of his life lacks. Dean is riveting in the murder scenes, and the staging indicates his character's internal struggle brought to the surface and acted upon without regret.

In piecing together his version of Woyzeck, director Jason Nodler used a number of translations of the play, meshing them together into something distinct and stunning. In the scenes that have little to do with Woyzeck, Nodler had the sense to use a classical Shakespearean element, the mad girl's song. Ophelia sang one before she threw herself into a creek, and they're a favorite of fools, who love to tell the ending before its time. In a scene with Marie, her otherwise quiet prostitute counterpart, Margret, sings a song that comes close to capturing a sense of this production: "I will take you by the hand," Margret sings, "and lead you into the gypsy land." More than anything else, Nodler's actors are a ragtag bunch of gypsies, caravanning around the weird, dark world of Buchner's play.

Woyzeck plays through August 17 at the Zocalo Theatre and Performance Compound, 5223 Feagan, 520-7080.

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Megan Halverson