Woyzeck: dance, drama and dehumanization

Chennai is a hardly a blip on the radar of international theater, and so the MetroPlus Theater Fest is a pilgrimage that Chennai theater lovers make every year, to see some of the best Indian and international theater troupes in action. Yesterday, I went to a performance of the German classic, Woyzeck (by Georg Buchner) by an Experimental Theater troupe from Korea called the Sadari Movement Laboratory. It was easily one of the most incredible performances I have seen in a long while.

The play was basically in Korean, with almost no surtitles. The person introducing the play told us we would have to ‘draw our own conclusions’ from the ‘minimalistic’ play. Usually when a play begins with this kind of introduction, I know that something extremely pretentious and incomprehensible is going to be imposed upon the audience. Perhaps many in Woyzeck’s audience went away thinking just this; speaking for myself, though, this was perhaps one of the first times that I enjoyed such a radical theater performance.

SML’s Woyzeck is a play about chairs. Ten chairs are all the props that the troupe used during the play – ten chairs, brilliant lighting, and sorcery. Using nothing more than this sparse ensemble of props, the actors conjured up incredible scenes: movements, emotions, scenery, action and drama. The fluidity of the play was beyond belief: in seconds, quite literally, the stage would completely change, and the actors would, through nothing more than their movements and their chair-handling, create an atmosphere – of merriment, of sadness, of loss, of love.

In spite of the denseness of the play, there were a few themes that stood out for me. The first is the theme of the ‘cog in the wheel’. Woyzeck, the protagonist of the play, is a soldier in the army. In one of the first scenes of the play, he takes part in what appears to be a bizarre game of musical chairs: his superiors in the army move around relinquishing their chairs at random, and Woyzeck must pick up the chair and, under the order of another superior, move the chair to him. I loved this hypnotizing scene, and the metaphor of how dependent Woyzeck is on his army superiors for opportunities, and how servile he has to be.

There is also a fascinating scene about how ‘humans become animals and animals become humans’ at a circus. There is an undercurrent in the play about the dehumanizing effects of regimentation; at a ‘meta’ level, the actors in the play exhibit such superhuman grace and artistry that they are nearly circus performers themselves, and in what I thought was a very interesting parallel, life in the army – its rules, its emphasis on physical accuracy and ableness – demands the same skills as life in a circus. And perhaps the metaphor of the scene was that this is true of life as well.

The precision of the choreography, and the highly stylized use of the chairs-as-props, reminded me again and again (and quite inexplicably) of that incredible page in ‘Watchmen’, where Rorschach explains his theory that human life is meaningless and the universe is random, and any pattern emerges only because of staring for too long into what is inherently patternless:

Stood in firelight, sweltering. Bloodstain on chest like map of violent new continent. Felt cleansed. Felt dark planet turn under my feet and knew what cats know that makes them scream like babies in night. Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

Another thing that blew me away about Woyzeck was the way in which the curtain calls were performed at the end of the play. Each scene in the play is almost a sculpture, really, made of light and chairs and a few uniformed humans. There is a mechanical element to the setting of the scene, with its motions and its arrangements. The actors are incredibly skilled at switching scenes lightning-fast, and at the end, during the credits, each character is introduced by creating, in seconds, a stand-out scene that the character appears in. These scenes are almost like vignettes of the play in flash-back. The device was so stunning and surprising that it caught the audience in one last hurrah of unbelievability, one last argument that the play was not theater at all, but magic.

And perhaps it was magic after all.

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