An excellent production of one of world literature’s most provocative plays, Thomas Whitaker’s Woyzeck is great both as theater and as food for thought about drama’s most enduring yet volatile genre, the tragedy. Based on a true 19th-century crime story, Woyzeck follows the final acts of a German peasant who murders his child’s mother before killing himself. On the cusp between Romanticism and modernity, the young playwright Georg B¼chner created a hero who perceives the falseness of the social system yet remains trapped by guilt, a victim of his own desires.
Matthew Horn does a wonderful job in the title role, creating empathy without sacrificing any of his character’s blood-curdling aggressiveness. As Woyzeck’s common-law wife, Marie, Jessie Sherman acts up a storm, constantly finding new ways to inhabit the many contradictory roles and attitudes she must portray. In Sherman’s hands, Marie takes on the stature of a second tragic figure. The production is well designed by Tal Sanders, and Ann Bruice’s costumes are terrific. Samantha Posey’s horse costume alone is worth the trip to UCSB. Other fine performances include Dakotah Brown’s exuberant Drum Major, Brennan Kelleher’s quirky Doctor, and Grant Gerard’s frightening captain; Amy Gumenick’s vibrant, provocative presence in no less than five supporting roles. The ensemble works together seamlessly to realize the director’s vision, which has them all onstage throughout the evening.
The aptness of this play to the present moment goes far beyond its anti-militarism or its celebration of the common man, which is questionable at best. Woyzeck is, after all, a murderer. The real excitement of returning to this text right now is in the way it embodies the fatal contradiction between “tragedy” as it is commonly used to describe painful events in real life, and tragedy as a literary genre. Woyzeck should be our hero-his perceptions of the unfairness of his society are entirely just-yet his violent reaction to injustice all too typically finds its outlet against those who are least responsible and most like him. From the makings of a tragic hero, what we get instead is a victim, and what’s more, a victim who in turn produces victims of his own. Unable to express his frustrations adequately in this world, in the end Woyzeck, mad with guilt, drags those he loves, and himself, deep into the next.