Black Box PAC presents Neil LaBute’s adaptation of the dark, disturbing ‘Woyzeck’

woyzeck review

Clockwise from top left, Tristan Strasser, Anne Elizabeth Miele, Michael Gardiner and Ilana Schimmel co-star in “Woyzeck” at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood.

In the preface of his 2015 adaptation of Georg Büchner’s unfinished 1836 play “Woyzeck,” Neil LaBute writes that while many historians consider it “at least an arguable starting point to the notion of ‘Modern Drama,’ I was simply transfixed by the way that so many scenes could gather steam and create a portrait of a society that was heading toward disaster.”

The Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood is currently presenting LaBute’s adaptation, in repertory with the “Woyzeck”-influenced play, “Cherry Hill” (read “Cherry Hill” review here). This “Woyzeck” is, true to LaBute’s (and Büchner’s) vision, transfixing, in a dark and disturbing way, imbuing the tale of the murderous soldier Woyzeck with the solemn and steady inevitability of a Greek tragedy.

Matty Ferrara and Ilana Schimmel in “Woyzeck.”

Michael Gardiner (who also directed) stars as Woyzeck, a soldier who is routinely belittled by his captain (Arthur Gregory Pugh) and toyed with by an eccentric doctor (Danielle MacMath) who is conducting a cruel experiment on him, making him eat only peas for weeks. Woyzeck has a child with his lover, Marie (Ilana Schimmel), but Marie, while she pities him as someone “so haunted by everything in this world,” has lost interest in him romantically, and begins an affair with a drum major (Matty Ferrara) who seems as easy-going and carefree as Woyzeck is tortured.

All the characters frequently intone “Woyzeck! Woyzeck! Woyzeck!,” like a Greek chorus or, perhaps, the voices inside his head, adding to the sense of a man going insane.

While the German Büchner was surely reflecting the sensibilities of the culture he was living in when he made the character of a shop owner (also played by Pugh) a stereotypical Jew (i.e., only concerned about money), I question LaBute’s decision not to alter this aspect of the play. It’s, frankly, offensive. While I agree it’s important to show the world’s materialism as one more thing driving the poor Woyzeck crazy, the short scene — in which Woyzeck buys a knife from the man — could easily have been changed to take the antisemitism out of it. And LaBute — as “Woyzeck” adapters have routinely done, given the unfinished nature of the original work — has made other significant changes to the script.

LaBute’s most alteration — and it’s a good one — is to add a universalizing ending, with Woyzeck’s friend Andres (Tristan Strasser) showing that he has been changed by what Woyzeck has gone through, and has become violent, too.

I don’t usually write about plays’ endings, but this isn’t really a twist, given that Andres is a minor character and we don’t really care about his fate until this moment, and it isn’t really a shock, since Büchner’s vision throughout the rest of the play is so uncompromisingly brutal. But it’s a great way to underscore the sentiment LaBute expresses in his preface, that “Woyzeck” isn’t just a portrait of a madman, but “a portrait of a society.”

Remaining performances of “Woyzeck” at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood take place Oct. 14-15, 20 and 22 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 16 and 23 at 3 p.m. Visit blackboxpac.com.

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