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The Madness of ‘Woyzeck’

By Caitlin Antonios

Andrew Borba’s adaptation of German playwright Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck feels especially relevant in 2016’s volatile and hawkish political atmosphere as it examines poverty, jealousy and the condition of soldiers returned from war.

Loosely based upon the true story of Johann Christian Woyzeck, Büchner’s unfinished play written in 1837, is one of the most performed and influential plays in German theatre, inspiring later playwrights like Bertolt Brecht.

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A haunting telling of the “slow descent into madness” of a man returned from war, Woyzeck utilizes an elaborate set and the immense talents of its actors to bring the story to life. (Photo courtesy of Paul R. Kennedy)

Guest Director Andrew Borba brings George Büchner’s play to UCI’s latest drama season. Despite the obvious challenges of undertaking a play with an unfinished script, Borba was enthusiastic about the latest production in Claire Trevor’s 2015-16 season: Care, Cure, Corruption.

“Büchner’s script is like the blueprint of a house. It’s beautiful but not yet built, and given the different translations and even the different endings available, the thrill of creating this world nearly from scratch with the designers, the actors and my own crazy imagination is certainly more challenging than most plays but also freeing,” said Borba.

The play follows the story of Franz Woyzeck, a soldier who returns from war to a German town where the mother of his child and infant son live. He is left in poverty and taken advantage of by villains the Captain and the Doctor. The audience witnesses Woyzeck’s slow descent into madness that provokes the question of free will versus social determinism while simultaneously criticizing the economic conditions of the working class.

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(Photo courtesy of Paul R. Kennedy)

The first thing the audience is greeted with is the stunning set filled with broken cement blocks, patches of grass and a slanted portion of a two-story multi-purpose building. Remaining stationary throughout the majority of the play, only minor changes are necessary to adapt to each scene, demonstrating the ingenuity and creativity of the set design. It begins the moment the audience enters the room, and while the house lights remain on, the production has already started, immediately enclosing the audience into the strange world of Franz Woyzeck.

In addition to the play’s set, it’s use of space, lighting and sound tactically shifts the audience’s mood and emotions. The actors inhabit the entire stage, both encompassing and alienating the audience with a physicality on stage that was almost exhausting to watch. Each character’s energy remained at full capacity, which at times was a bit jarring to watch.

Loud, electric rock music served as the interlude between scenes replacing traditional black-outs. While a seemingly odd choice of music, it served to bring a sense of modernity that coupled nicely with the costumes.

The outfits and set took the play out of a specific time period, allowing the audience to be removed from the events of the play and instead examine, assess and relate to the plot. With the nonconformity of the costumes to a specific time, style or genre that incorporated detailed animal masks and imagery as well as military garments, the costumes provided the audience members an outline of the themes criticized in Büchner’s play. The dark green and black of the military uniforms contrasted with the bright orange, white, and purple costumes that ignited a startling transition between grim scenes and comical, carnival scenes.

All these elements would have been rendered useless, however, without the unbelievable performances of the cast. Lead by Blake Morris as Franz Woyzeck, the cast brings this dark, twisted, psychological drama to life with their physicality and off-beat humor.

Morris’ performance was a spectacle that constantly provoked the audience to think about Woyzeck’s actions and his response to circumstance. His performance is so compelling that it can make viewers physically uncomfortable. His descent into madness is as convincing as it is emotionally draining.

Woyzeck is a part of UCI Drama’s Season of Care, Cure, Corruption which aims to open discussions about mental illness as well as investigate ways in which, as a society and individuals, we may heal and progress towards a more humane and unified future.

Woyzeck will run from March 12-14 at the Claire Trevor Theatre.