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University Theatre's Woyzeck is an ambitious, avant-garde take on Büchner's tale of a murderous soldier
With an aesthetic that mixes Weimar German cabaret, steampunk and industrial elements, Woyzeck leaves a memorable visual impression.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

Few plays are as enigmatic as Georg Büchner's Woyzeck. It was never finished due to its author's untimely death at the age of 23, in 1837. Büchner left behind a number of scenes, but no instructions about their order or his intentions. Because of this, the dark tale of Franz Woyzeck, a soldier on the brink of mental and physical collapse who is driven to murder, offers broad artistic possibilities to those who produce it.

The University Theatre production (through March 16), which opened last night in Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre, upends convention at every turn. UW instructor Kristin Hunt has adapted Büchner's text and directs. Performers interact with the audience in the lobby before the show and during the play itself. Brechtian alienation effects -- elements that remind the audience they're watching a play rather than surrendering passively to the world on stage -- are in full force. The audience has a chance to move, to talk back, even to eat and drink.

The production's design elements (Christa Lewandowski's costumes and Leigh Henderson's production design) are also critical. This is a bleak, edgy story that is also quite spare in its narrative. With an aesthetic that mixes Weimar German cabaret, carnivals, steampunk and industrial elements and even a dash of bondage gear, Woyzeck leaves a memorable visual impression.

While these disparate visual influences create a surprisingly cohesive whole, the performances are more varied (or uneven, depending on how you view it). Hunt has gone for gender-blind casting in choosing Ely Phan as the degraded, desperate soldier. I last saw Phan in University Theatre's production of The Mousetrap. In that Agatha Christie whodunit, her character was the opposite of Woyzeck: a haughty, older woman with a gift for complaining.

Here, Phan takes on the role of a soldier berated by a cruel captain and sinister doctor, and betrayed by his prostitute lover. Her performance is gutsy but fairly naturalistic. As in The Mousetrap, she doesn't take things over the top.

Woyzeck serves as a foil for the more extreme, outlandish characters around him, as well as the carnival-esque characters (the Barker, the Monkey, the Canary-Bird and the Horse) that invite us in to watch his downfall.

The scary-clown makeup of the Barker (Alex Librie) belies his smooth diction and cold demeanor. As the Monkey (who looks like a sullen harlequin rather than an actual monkey), Ben Krueger shows off a fine singing voice. During an interlude between scenes, he sings the traditional murder ballad "Stagolee," prefiguring the murder to come in the play. And as the Canary, Daniel Millhouse is cruel, anarchic and hammy all at once.

This is the second production I've seen of Woyzeck (the first was in a disused train depot in my Michigan hometown, roughly -- egad -- 25 years ago). It's still hard to know what to make of Büchner's tragedy. Though loosely based on an actual murder, it seems to exist free of time and place. It seems incredible that this modern, avant-garde work was written by someone born two centuries ago. Certainly, some of that has to do with the purposefully anachronistic choices made by the director, but some of that seems intrinsic to this mysterious play itself.

This production won't be everyone's cup of tea (my companion found it incoherent). But it's an ambitious undertaking that challenges its cast and audience to try something new, which is just what a university theater should be doing. And I can guarantee you won't walk out with a shrug, saying, "Well, I've seen that before."

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