The night is cold and the crisp smell of autumn wafts through the air. I find that my three companions and I are walking to a building I have never noticed before; a building, which I am told, is slated for demolition. That’s why we’re here. That’s why this whole event is happening. That is why I am standing outside at nine o’clock at night in front of a school building instead of lying on the couch with the idea of sleep in the near future. I am here, in front of Norris Hall on the University of Minnesota’s east bank, to see my first experimental theater show.
“The Woyzeck Project,” is based off Georg Büchner’s unfinished play “Woyzeck.” It remains incomplete because Büchner died during the writing process. The show began as a five-week class exploring the text and researching Büchner himself. Apparently the only good to have come out of the class was that it informed the directors of what they didn’t want the show to be. Luverne Seifert, one of the department of Theatre Arts and Dance faculty members directing the project, and the other directors did not want to base the production on the Büchner’s text. Instead they decided to let the student actors explore the themes of the play, in which Woyzeck murders his lover, the prostitute named Marie, and create vignettes. After much editing, the directors and actors successfully wove the vignettes together thus creating the finalized, fragmented, hour-long show. The directors believe because the original play was unfinished, it lent itself to the fragmented version of their particular presentation.
Now, I am not new to the idea of “experimental” theater. I am modern dancer, after all. Seeing “crazy” and “abstract” ideas presented onstage is a regular occurrence for me. But that’s motion…movement. And it’s onstage. It’s not in an old gym where the performers are most definitely popping your personal bubble. Dazed disturbed random taskmasters dressed in clear plastic garbage bags are in your face, forcing you to sing and sway and they yell at you if you don’t do what they say. I’m a little out of my comfort zone and this is only part of the pre-show.
I’m tickled as I walk inside; this is the building where the university’s dance program used to reside – this is where my teachers used to dance when they were undergrads. I’m sure it looks very different now. In those days dancers in bright colored leotards and yoga pants would bounce down the hallways. Nowadays, the building is usually deserted, the halls dark with mice and other creatures of the night skittering around. However, tonight, the Hall is once again filled with students.
Small yellow lights are scattered here there and everywhere. Lockers with people in them line the walls. Hollow drum beats echo through the hallway. Is that guy peeing in a bucket? Yes, he is.
The taskmasters from outside stop the few dozen of us audience members in the middle of a dimly lit hallway. There is a public restroom to our left. The door is open and a guard is blocking its entrance. The taskmasters direct us to a crude yet slightly nostalgic puppet show box. Suddenly, two puppets reveal themselves. Apparently these beings-on-a-stick represent the play’s two characters, Woyzeck and Marie. They begin to act out the plot of the play. It was sort of strange to watch. Typically audiences do not see the entire plot acted out before the actual show begins. However, I later realized that by seeing this pre-show, I understood the more abstracted, “out there” vignettes. Without the puppet show, I’m pretty sure I would have walked around the Norris Hall gym with a “What the hell!?!” expression on my face. Although, I will say that seeing a puppet have sex and then kill his lover is kind of a disturbing sight, especially when they have an uncanny resemblance to the puppets on “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.”
After the pre-show, the other audience members and I shuffle our way past a short line of lockers. There are people in them. They try to scare us. It is like the “Evil Dead 2″ of theater. From there, we enter a twisting labyrinth. Photographs line each wall and each wall leads to a compartment with actors acting out a seemingly random scene. In one such compartment two people – Woyzeck and Marie – are sitting in a chair, staring at each other. Woyzeck is hiding a knife behind his back. In another, Woyzeck is eating a bowl of green mushy mashed peas.
After a good ten minutes of wandering around this strange world, a voice booms. It is yet another Woyzeck. He directs us to the far end of the gym where a wired caged the size of a living room stands. It is empty save for two lights. He speaks at length in jumbled sentences – sentences that seem to have been strung together because they to not relate to one another. Woyzeck takes a moment of pause. There are footsteps in the distance. They’re growing louder. Louder. Louder. A storm of Rocky wannabes run into the cage, jumping on its wired walls, their feet inches from your face. The caged mass begins to dance and thrash about but I am thoroughly confused as to what their vignette has to do with the rest of the show. “It’s supposed to represent the feeling of the play,” I was later told by a performer, however, I am unconvinced. Because I know the choreographer and have taken many a modern dance class with him, part of me thinks he just wanted to make the dancers throw themselves around for fun. He likes that kind of movement; that kind of “throw yourself around for the hell of it” movement that I appreciate on a physical side.
The dancing in “The Woyzeck Project” is what I expect from Carl, and I love watching that raw energy…but…I failed to see the continuity between it and the rest of the story. Ultimately was left wanting more because the dancing ended as suddenly as it began. The dancers and actors are running outside the building.
Fire dancers and death await the audience in the grass. Marie saunters over to Woyzeck. He is crazed. His mind plagued by jealousy and the need to control Marie overcomes him. He does not want anyone else to touch Marie. She can only be with him. She goes in for an embrace and receives death. Woyzeck picks up her corpse and runs away into the night. And like the unfinished play, “The Woyzeck Project” abruptly ends.