Where Existential Despair Meets Elvis

New play mixes music of Elvis Presley and prophetic drama

Heartbreak, jealousy, loneliness — Elvis Presley gave luxuriant voice to these less than cheerful emotions. But did you ever think of him as a balladeer of the unbearable bleakness of being, of the horror of existing without purpose in a godless universe?


Edward Hogg plays the title role of a soldier going mad in “Woyzeck,” the defining and unfinished play from the dramatist Georg Büchner.

In the improbably vivacious London-born production of “Woyzeck” that runs through Dec. 3 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, vintage Elvis recordings provide much of the background music for Daniel Kramer’s adaptation of Georg Büchner’s great, prophetic drama of existential emptiness from the 1830’s.

Dolly Parton and, more predictably, Beethoven make aural guest appearances. But it’s the voice of the Pelvis that sets the rhythm of life. And if the wedding of Presley and Büchner is more shotgun marriage than natural love match, at least you leave the theater feeling less suicidal than you normally do after two hours with one of the grimmest heroes in Western literature.

A critical and popular sensation for the small and inventive Gate Theater in London, Mr. Kramer’s copiously accessorized staging works hard to make “Woyzeck” fun with a capital F, while retaining the play’s heart of darkness. In truth, it works much harder than it needs to, piling on interpretive frills that sometimes all but smother the raw power of its source.

Still, there’s no denying that Mr. Kramer, a 29-year-old American based in London, has solid theatrical instincts. His revamping of Büchner’s fragmented and never-completed portrait of the human animal includes beautiful painterly images that are chilling to the point of frostbite, expertly rendered by a crack technical team that includes Neil Irish (set and costumes) and David Howe (lighting).

And in the title role of a soldier descending into madness and Othello-strength jealousy, Edward Hogg packs an inescapable, throbbing anguish within the outlines of a gymnastically stylized portrait. It’s a performance that captures both the intellectual sense and emotional sensibility of Büchner.

The same cannot be said of the production as a whole, which nearly always makes sense thematically but only rarely grabs the guts. With its time-traveling mix of references and deliberately mismatched acting, Mr. Kramer’s eclectic technique recalls the days when the American theater was discovering postmodernism several decades ago.

Accordingly, Woyzeck tools around the stage on a tricycle, performing his soldierly duties or taking his doomed common-law wife, Marie (Myriam Acharki), for a spin.

The army doctor (Tony Guilfoyle) who is using Woyzeck as a guinea pig in a medical experiment, behaves like a tic-ridden parody of the mad scientist Frankenstein and has a creepy fondness for groping his patients’ genitals and dressing up like Tammy Wynette. Woyzeck’s captain (Fred Pearson) brings to mind a cheerfully obtuse Victorian commander out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Much is made of the really big baton carried by the strapping drum major (David Harewood), Woyzeck’s rival for Marie. And the ambisexual showman (Josh Cole) who runs a traveling carnival sideshow might be a runaway from a Fellini circus (despite his mustard-thick French accent).

These literal-minded portrayals sound more groan-making than they usually are. Mr. Kramer’s flashiness is never symbolically inappropriate and is sometimes even illuminating, especially in the carnival sequence’s gleeful blurring of the lines between the human audience and the performing animals.

A scene that juxtaposes working-class industry (set to Ms. Parton singing “Nine to Five”) with ruling-class indolence is staged with balletic precision. And Mr. Hogg and Mr. Harewood perform a smashingly savage apache dance in a bar scene, as Mr. Harewood lip-synchs to Presley’s recording of “Trouble.” (Ann Yee is the choreographer.)

Ultimately, these zesty interpolations, entertaining though they may be, make “Woyzeck” seem cruder and more obvious than it is. It’s like reading a great poem that has been annotated with brightly underlined passages and enthusiastic marginal notes. (“This Büchner dude really gets it!”) The sting of the open wound of the play’s agonized nihilism is partly anesthetized by its being so painstakingly explained to us.

It is in the quieter moments that the dazzling darkness of “Woyzeck” shimmers anew. The opening vision of Woyzeck and his pal Andres (Roger Evans), slumped together on a dead-leaf-strewn stage like discarded marionettes, is ravishing. So is the scene when the naked Woyzeck, bathing in a metal tub, seems to turn into a cold, angular slab of dead flesh.

Mr. Hogg is first-rate throughout. Even when Woyzeck behaves like a military robot, all jerky mechanical gestures, the fever of madness and unspeakable pain radiates from his bright eyes and tight mouth. There is always an organic connection between style and substance.

For all its rock ’n’ roll thunder, the production’s most wrenching moment is so quiet that it almost passes unnoticed. That’s when Woyzeck, visiting the carnival sideshow with his girl, sees a monkey dressed up as a soldier.

Up to this point, Woyzeck has listened uneasily to various people talking about the animal in man. But when he sees that monkey, a subtle click of recognition registers on Mr. Hogg’s face that spells the end of hope for his character. That expression is sadder, and truer to the abiding resonance of “Woyzeck,” than any of the violent sound and fury that follow.

WOYZECK By Georg Büchner; adapted and directed by Daniel Kramer; sets and costumes by Neil Irish; lighting by David Howe; sound by Adrienne Quartly; choreographer, Ann Yee; assistant director, Kendall O’Neill; production managers, John Titcombe and Owen Hughes; stage manager, Dan Ayling. A Gate Theater London production; presented by Tali Pelman, KLN Productions and Arts at St. Ann’s. At St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water Street, at Dock Street, Brooklyn; (718) 254-8779. Through Dec. 3. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

WITH: Edward Hogg (Woyzeck), Roger Evans (Andres), Clive Brunt (Sergeant), David Harewood (Drum Major), Myriam Acharki (Marie), Rachel Lumberg (Margaret), Fred Pearson (Captain), Tony Guilfoyle (Doctor), Diana Payne-Myers (Grandmother) and Josh Cole (Showman).

Source: Ben Brantley, New York Times, 19 Nov 2006


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