Review: `Woyzeck’

Opened March 15, 2007, Exit on Taylor

Cutting Ball slices into murderous Woyzeck
three stars Creepy, compelling

If Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck seems to be an explosion of dramatic ideas and imagery, well, that’s exactly what it is.

Woyzeck is a mess of a play about a mess of a world.

San Francisco theater company The Cutting Ball, specialists in experimental works and reinterpretations of classics, opened a sharp production of Woyzeck last week at The Exit on Taylor.

Depending on your taste for the inscrutable, Woyzeck is either a blissfully short — 70 minutes — slice of German Expressionism or a fascinating piece of theatrical history that still has a lot to offer.

Buchner died of typhus at age 23, leaving behind only a handful of plays and short pieces of fiction (and an influential revolutionary tract called The Hessian Messenger). He wrote “Woyzeck,” based on a real-life case of a soldier named Johann Christian Woyzeck who was executed in 1821 for the murder of his girlfriend, the year before he died, but the text, in bits and pieces, wasn’t exactly complete.

Editors attempted to put the thing together and published it in 1879, though the first performance didn’t arrive until 1913.

Alan Berg turned the story into an opera, Wozzeck, in 1925, and the play has been continually fiddled with ever since.

For The Cutting Ball production, Rob Melrose has given the text an accessible new translation, and director Adriana Baer helps focus Buchner’s manic story with a beautifully designed and sturdily performed production.

What’s real and what isn’t in Woyzeck is completely up for interpretation. You can take the story literally and assume that Woyzeck (Chad Deverman, above), a 30-year-old soldier, is so mentally unstable that he imagines all kinds of bizarre situations, including the murder of his lover, the prostitute Marie (Drea Bernardi, above).

That would explain the presence of a white-coated scientist (Ryan Oden) who seems to be conducting experiments on Woyzeck, one of which involves forcing him into a diet of only peas. It might also explain the surreal circus with a scary ringmaster (David Sinaiko), the human horse (Rebecca Martin) and ape (Bill Selig).

If all of this is happening in Woyzeck’s head, can we believe that he really murders Marie in a fit of jealousy? It’s hard to say.

That’s where the other levels come in. It could be that Buchner used the story to comment on the ways in which society, industrialization, poverty and the like erode the human mind and turn us into savage animals.

Whatever the interpretation, Baer’s production is always interesting to look at. Melpomene Katakalos’ mostly white set is a collage of everyday items all neatly contained in shelves and compartments, and Melrose’s lighting plays off the whiteness to give us washes of red or green to match the mood. He also uses the harshness of fluorescent lights to heighten the sense of discomfort.

Not surprisingly, given the incomplete nature of the script, the play ends abruptly, leaving us to sort through all the images and come to our own conclusions.

The actors never let the energy flag, and their physically specific, almost dance-like movements, give the action a surreal, dreamlike quality. Deverman’s Woyzeck never gives too much away — is he a victim or a madman? We’re never quite sure, and that’s a good thing.

Bernardi’s Marie is by turns lusty and fearful. At one point she says to Woyzeck: “I’d rather have a knife in my heart than your hands on my body.” Ouch. And a special note about Bernardi: after Marie is killed in the woods, Bernardi becomes the scariest corpse ever. As Deverman jostles her around, her head lolls, her eyes roll back in her head, and the audience flinches. Truly creepy. And great.

Woyzeck is a strange theatrical experience, but strange can have its rewards.

For information about Woyzeck and The Cutting Ball visit

One thought on “Review: `Woyzeck’

  1. Ooh– your review makes me want to go see it even more than I already did. By the by, I’ve never seen a Rob Melrose lighting design that wasn’t in-freaking-credible. And Ryan Oden is the shiznit. 🙂

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