At Clarence Brown, an Unnerving 'Woyzeck'

A new translation of the 19th century play brings out both its tragedy and its dark humor

It might be in the spirit of Woyzeck to open a review of the play with a perhaps pathological obsession, a chronic gripe about the program: There's a lot of generic stuff about the playwright and his times, including a page and a half about "the Political Background" and a page of random Georg Buchner quotes from something called "brainyquote.com." It's all interesting enough to keep you occupied if you arrive in your seat too early. But there is no mention of the evolution of this particular treatment—or that this production marks the world premiere of a new English translation of a famously shocking European play—though you might get a clue if you read all the personnel bios and notice that among those included are two translators, Stephanie Ohnesorg and Noah Soltau, plus a composer, Terry Silver-Alford.

Nor is there anything much that will prepare you for this production.

Woyzeck arrives at the University of Tennessee's Carousel Theatre with a particularly strange pedigree. Georg Buchner, a political writer and ineffectual revolutionary in 1830s Germany, died of typhus at age 23, leaving unfinished this peculiar drama about a paranoid wife-killer. It was not published until decades later, and never produced until decades after that. When it premiered in 1913 Munich, its stark, absurdist, barely coherent plot must have seemed hypermodern, a little too early for the Dada movement.

Something about this odd fragment has caught the attention of several generations of ground-breaking artists, inspiring an opera by Alban Berg, a movie by Werner Herzog, and separate musical plays by both Tom Waits and Nick Cave.

UT's production offers no hip music, though it may surprise you that it does have some music, eerie but melodious singing by Katy Wolfe Zahn, who occasionally offers a sort of slant narration for the tragedy. Also surprising is that it contains a good deal of humor, maybe a distant ancestor to the absurdism of Monty Python.

It's a vivid and startling production, surprising even from the moment you walk into the venerable round theater. Apparently for the first time in the theater's 60-year history, the circle is dissected. The stage spans the theater's diameter like a runway, dividing the audience into two equal and opposite parts. The other audience, over there, seems like a distorted reflection of our audience, over here, adding to the general eeriness of the presentation.

The unique oblong stage, which includes multiple trap doors used to unexpected effect, and which conceals a further surprise until the very end, is one it's safe to say you have not seen before.

There's not much to say about the plot. Herr Woyzeck, a middle-aged soldier who's terrified by voices in the walls and floor and weird insights he doesn't understand, is the prime subject of experiments concerning "The Effects of Peas on the Brain," observed by a reckless scientist who's proud of every abnormal symptom. Woyzeck's careless common-law wife—mother of his child—has an affair with a handsome young soldier. Woyzeck has a hard time with this revelation, and questions existence.

You may not ever care much about Woyzeck. Professional actor and UT acting professor Jed Diamond portrays a chronically appalled Woyzeck, whose face is so distorted in anguish at the beginning of the play that it doesn't leave him much room to seem even more anguished at the end. We never entertain delusions that things might work out for the guy.

And you certainly won't care about any of the other characters. But I'm not sure that's the point. The characters are voices in the head, bizarre characters in a dream. Woyzeck's dreams, our dreams. Woyzeck seems, at times, a literal transcription of a nightmare.

If it doesn't make perfect sense, neither do most nightmares, nor for that matter much of what happens in our conscious hours.

The colorful production is compelling to watch, and at barely more than an hour in length, requires no intermission.

"Why do I even care?" "It's all the same." "One thing after another." "Keep going." These become a mantra for more than one character. "Does the no cause the yes, or the yes no?" "Why doesn't God blow out the sun?" They sound like jumbled clips from philosophical tracts. The minimalist lines can make you think of what Samuel Beckett was doing, a century later. But there are moments of poignant hope: "So much is possible with people—so much." Or, then again, maybe that can also be construed as terror.

The graduate students who carry the play do so with varying degrees of success—within the full cast of 10, six energetic actors share about 19 brief roles.

Sometimes the cast seems to struggle with the atonal rhythm of the narrative, but it's hard to get a good enough purchase to say any portrayal is wrong. However, Julie Lake, crossing genders to play a circus-style showman, a grandmother, and a Jewish merchant, is a charismatic standout. And the production accomplishes, without peer, the most mechanically effective scene of equine defecation in UT Theatre history.

It might also vie to be the bloodiest production at the Carousel this year, except that it would have to be compared to Oedipus the King, which may actually have stained more square footage of costume with crimson goo. But Woyzeck does accomplish an unnervingly realistic murder. You don't hear audience gasps at a slasher film like the ones I heard at the Carousel this past weekend.

The play is sometimes characterized as a political drama, and maybe it was intended that way. Maybe the soldiers represented repressive Hapsburg-era regimes, maybe the mad doctor the heartless aspects of medical science. But the play comes across in 2010 as an existential howl. For that reason, it doesn't seem as dated as, say, Hair. Despite the passage of 175 years, the unknowns of human existence lie across the same frontiers as they ever did.