Büchner Unbound: Upstream Theater makes the most of the unfinished Woyzeck

You couldn't ask for a better murder. Or so we're told at the end of Woyzeck, as all the inhabitants of a provincial military town creep across the stage, headed toward the bloody body as gleefully self-righteous as if they were on their way to buy the current issue of the National Enquirer. In this absorbing new translation (and staging) by Upstream Theater's artistic director Philip Boehm, Georg Büchner's 1837 would-be tragedy plays out with the repellent curiosity of yet another lurid TV news report about a domestic dispute-turned-violent.

Nearly 175 years after his death, Büchner remains an influential figure in world theater. Born into an esteemed medical family in Germany, he was a young romantic who found himself at odds with the real world. Although Napoleon was no longer a threat to Europe, the prospect of the emergence of another tyrant had swung the German people toward a more repressive style of conservatism. In protest, Büchner wrote two plays — both of them more concerned with abstractions than with stagecraft — and was working on a third, Woyzeck, when he suddenly died at age 23.

Over the past century, many an academician has tried to complete Woyzeck. (As did filmmaker Werner Herzog, in 1979.) It is always dicey to tamper with a manuscript-in-progress. Look at the muck, for instance, scholars have made of Herman Melville's unfinished novella, Billy Budd. No one — but no one — can penetrate the creative mind. It is folly to second-guess what a young radical firebrand like Büchner intended.

But Boehm does not presume to be a mind reader. He's more concerned with telling a bracing story. Boehm's Woyzeck certainly adheres to Büchner's outline. But what plays out at the Kranzberg Arts Center feels more like a variation on a theme. Boehm has fashioned an essentially new play. In other versions Franz Woyzeck, a common soldier who is pummeled by a disorienting world, seems to be glazed-over crazy from the outset. Here we are allowed to witness his life unravel.

J. Samuel Davis is ideally cast in the title role. Davis is such an engaging actor, he could make Richard III seem like a pussycat. Even when Woyzeck waxes on about a kind of silence "as if the world were dead," there's no reason for us not to agree with his common-law wife, Marie, who describes Woyzeck as "a good man" whose key flaw is that he thinks too much (which might be an apt description of Büchner himself). Davis makes us care about our protagonist.

Marie, too, intrigues. Initially she seems thrilled to simply be the mother of Woyzeck's child. But Marie lives in the moment, and she is too willing to allow herself to be seduced by the Drum-Major. In his first play, the political tract Danton's Death, Büchner wrote that "freedom has become a whore." Here he personifies that abstraction by turning Marie, who delights in her freedom, into a whore. Brooke Edwards' Marie effects the transition from innocent bliss to a kind of blistering Carmen with great effect. She is, as the script dictates, as "beautiful as sin."

The impressively disciplined ensemble includes Peter Mayer as the commanding Drum-Major; John Bratkowski's wacky doctor, who seems to have been inspired by the oafishness of MGM character actor Frank Morgan, and Steve Isom's hollow-headed Captain. When a touring carnival pays a visit, Lavonne Byers becomes a wonderfully effective show horse. Later in the evening, she returns looking like a character out of a Grimm fairy tale. When her first line is "once upon a time," we realize how evocative Michele Siler's costumes are. Scenic designer Michael Heil has designed a set whose imaginative use of space conveys a suffocating small-town environ.

Ultimately though, this is Philip Boehm's success. As translator, author and director, he has taken a great gamble by trying to make a stilted, unrealized play come to life as relevant, resonant theater. His gamble has paid off. You couldn't ask for a better evening of Büchner. 

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