German dramatist Georg Buchner was only 23 when he died, leaving his most famous work, Woyzeck incomplete—a jumble of fragments and scenes, many with no discernible beginning, middle and end.
Nonetheless, the 1837 play remains a classic, “with its own inner logic, powerful dramatic appeal and tremendous relevance to our times,” says Alkis Papoutsis, a lecturer in the Department of Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts. BMCC’s Theatre Program, in cooperation with the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, will perform Woyzeck on campus in Theatre 2, Saturday, November 20 and Sunday, November 21 at 2 and 7 p.m. The production is directed by Papoutsis. Christopher Peifer is the Sound Designer and Mia Bienovich is the Costume Designer.
Breaking new dramatic ground
“As a director, I’m always attracted to plays with a first-of-its-type component,” says Papoutsis. “Woyzeck fits this category because it marked the birth of modern theatre. Prior to Buchner, plays were typically about kings, queens and nobility. Woyzeck was the first major play about the common man.”
The title character is a lowly soldier who is exploited by the authorities and subjected to a strange medical experiment, “yet he cannot quite verbalize what he feels,” Papoutsis says. In one revealing scene, the captain, played by Theatre major Matthew Preston, runs his finger across a chair and wordlessly orders Woyzeck, played by Kevin Kash, to get to work. After dusting the chair, Woyzeck shaves the Captain’s face and head, his nervousness evident in every stroke of the razor. “Slowly, Woyzeck,” the Captain says with cold imperiousness. “Nice and slowly. One thing at a time.” The Captain, says Preston, “represents not only authority, but his power over the common man.”
In the 170+ years since Woyzeck was written, it has been translated, edited and adapted innumerable times. The BMCC adaptation is by Elizabeth Chaney, an assistant professor in the Department of Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts who is also the scenic designer for the production.
From 19th century Germany to the American South in the ‘30s
“I discovered Woyzeck years ago as a student, and studied it in both undergraduate and graduate courses,” she says. “It’s a play that has long been beloved by theatre people and it was the first play I designed when I was fresh out of grad school.” To prepare for this production, Chaney read as many translations as she could find – “There have been many,” she says – but typically found the dialogue forced and overly formal.
“In creating my own adaptation, I wanted to make the language feel modern and immediate,” she says. “Alkis and I discussed the possibility of making the play more contemporary. For example, it could be about a soldier returning from the war in Iraq and struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome. But that would turn it into a political play, which we wanted to avoid.”
Instead, Chaney shifted the setting to the American South during the Great Depression of the 1930s. “That brings the story into out country and culture and modernizes it—but without politicizing it,” she says.
A BMCC Theater major who worked as a professional actor for 15 years before returning to school, Kevin Kash says he has “enormous empathy” for Woyzeck, the character he portrays. “For me, the challenge is not to sentimentalize Woyzeck,” he says. “But I genuinely feel for him. Throughout the play, he is up against forces much greater than himself. Woyzeck is truly one of the first antiheroes in dramatic literature.”
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Woyzeck will be performed at 2 pm and 7 pm on Saturday, November 20, and Sunday 21, in Theatre 2 of the main building on the BMCC campus (199 Chambers Street). Tel: 212 220 1460. Admission is free.