“I almost feel bad even calling it Woyzeck”, said Director Matt Hune just a short while before the show’s opening at Rec Room Arts. A funny thing to say about Georg Büchner’s classic 19th-century play, one of the most performed and influential pieces of German theater repertory. A show considered the first real example of modern theater. A piece about working class people and their tragedies.
But if you know anything about the origins and evolution of Woyzeck, it’s a statement that makes some sense.
In fact, there is no Woyzeck the play, at least not in the traditional sense. Büchner died before he could complete the work, leaving just fragments of his story articulated. Enter the others - the playwrights, the lyricists, the librettists, the composers and the screenwriters who have finished, interpreted and adapted the story into numerous plays, an opera, a ballet, two musicals and several films.
But Hune’s concern isn’t so much that others have fiddled with Büchner’s work, it’s that Rec Room has.
Eschewing all previous adaptations, Rec Room instead turned to Houston/LA-based playwright Maurielle McGarvey to come up with an entirely new take on the story. What we get is a 50-minute aggressively pared down and opaquely abstract Woyzeck that delivers stylistically but ultimately sucks all the measure and meaning air from its narrative.
Based on the real-life case of a barber who was sentenced to death for stabbing his mistress in a jealous rage, Büchner’s play tells the tale of Woyzeck, a lowly, poor, soldier, his girlfriend Marie and their baby. Woyzeck is struggling to make ends meet, he’s belittled by his superiors and is enrolled in a medical experiment that is wreaking havoc on his physical and mental health. He also suspects that Marie is having an affair with one of his colleagues. No wonder he goes into a murderous fit, the story posits.
Adaptations in the past have picked and chosen the theme(s) they wish to highlight in this richly complex issue grab bag, and McGarvey is no different. Mental illness (not poverty or class or military culture) is her bullseye, throwing a heavy muffling cape over pretty much all the other themes.
Set in modern times, the play (which is constructed in four acts) opens with Woyzeck (Jayden Key) in the throes of early love with his girlfriend Marie (Emma Singleton). On an ice-white propless, bare set, save for a screen positioned on the back wall facing the audience, we watch the pair kiss, joke, decide to hold off on having sex and name newly acquired pet mice. All this in a kind of two-or-three-line maximum staccato of barest dialogue that leaves precious little room to know or care about the young lovers.
In between these moments, and throughout the show, the screen comes to life, flashing full-screen color or blinding strobing-white bursts (Addie Pawlick’s Lighting Design) that sent me and anyone prone to migraines into full throbbing visual arrest.
In the equally short acts that follow, some scenes are amusing - a slo-mo dope-smoking schtick that has Marie, Woyzeck and his friend Adam, the eventual cause of Woyzeck’s jealousy (Jakob Hulten), slowly passing the pipe, eating chips and talking as though underwater. Amusing as well is that while in Büchner’s original, Marie is accused of carrying on with the army Drum Major, here in a wink-wink if you know the story, Adam is majoring in drums at College. Clever and a half, that.
Other scenes are disturbing in a slippery way we can’t quite wrap our minds around. We see Woyzeck and who we presume is his psychiatrist/doctor (Greg Dean) engage in power plays. Woyzeck complaining about something implanted in his arm, the Doctor ordering Woyzeck around like a trained dog to perfect effect. “Stop, Down, Come” are all orders barked by the Doctor, and Woyzeck responds in obedient robotic form.
We think he maybe he’s being tortured, or not. No wait, the treatment is humiliating for sure. But then just look at the flashbacks Woyzeck is having. He’s abusive to Marie. Trying to burn her. To rape her. Worse. Maybe the therapy is for his own good? Or are the flashbacks just hallucinations? Honestly, do we really even care? It ‘s not like we’ve been given the tools to connect with any of these people along the way.
That’s the issue with McGarvey’s script, she’s scraped it back to the bones so efficiently, there’s no meat left for us to even scavenge for.
Not even with some of the city’s best talent on stage. Seeing Dean on a cast list reminds us of exactly how much we’ve missed him in a production this year. Other than his excellent turn in another Rec Room production (Exit Strategy), we haven’t had the pleasure of his talent this season. But blink and you’ll miss his thinly written character in this show, rendering his effort superfluous.
Same goes for Jaden Key, one of Houston’s most interesting young talents. We’ve watched him own stages and claw out our hearts this season, but here, with so little material or motivation to work with, his jealousy, his mania, his ultimate rage, fizzles out quicker than a wet match.
Of the entire cast then, perhaps it’s fitting that Emma Singleton (Marie) gets the only real substantive block of dialogue in the show when she finally rejects Woyzeck. A student at the University of Michigan, Singleton’s a performer we haven’t seen before in Houston, and while it still isn’t a showpiece role, at least we are given a glimpse of the talent she might be.
The rest of the positive artistic touches happen behind the scenes.
While Director Hune can’t overcome the shortfalls that plague this script, he does inject an immensely attractive bit of staging that ensures that this narratively-lacking show is at least fascinating to look at.
In addition to the four speaking characters, the play is accompanied by male and female chorus members who flank the small stage at all times, like living statues whose body language represents the mood on stage. Heads turn to walls in difficult moments. The group smokes when anxiety appears. They stroke each other when affection is show or comfort is needed. Often they’re more compelling than the action on stage.
When they are part of the action, Hune employs them in a herky-jerky proto dance backed by pulsating light (oh my aching head), extravaganza that makes us think this Woyzeck might have better succeeded with a more modern dance approach.
The other unseen star of the production is sound designer Robert Leslie Meek, whose plethora of musical genres (opera to death metal to classical piano to the TV off-air sound) peppers the production with aural grandeur and stands in for much of the script’s missing emotive oomph.
It's a shame that after such a strong showing this season, Rec Room has to close on such a deflated offering. And yet, we can’t really be mad at the show, can we? An original adaptation, by a local writer of a world-famous story that at least in my time in Houston, hasn’t been produced. Sure, it lacked. But it risked. Go out swinging, I say.
Woyzeck runs through August 3 at Rec Room Arts, 100 Jackson. For information, visit recroomarts.org $15-30.