The Woyzeck Project is the Avatar of experimental theater. The site-specific work for which Luverne Seifert, Carl Flink, and Michael Sommers (under the ad hoc name of BLM/Seifert/Flink CREATE) have taken over the entirety of the Southern Theater and much of the surrounding area is a tremendous technical achievement in scope and vision—a technical achievement that’s reason enough the see the show, which from a purely dramatic standpoint is disappointing.
The show is practically an encyclopedia of site-specific installation techniques. Here are just a few of the bases it rounds:
- Walking audience
- Fractured text
- Multiple venues used simultaneously
- Audience semi-autonomy
- Audience participation
- Interaction with the outside world
- Photography encouraged
- Redefined spaces
- Use of all audience senses (touch, smell, taste, etc.)
- Installation art elements
- Dance elements
- Nudity (“possible”)
- Visible tech crew
- Extremely loud, harsh sounds
- Ambiguous starting point and ending point
We’re talking plastic sheeting, we’re talking torn costumes, we’re talking chain-link fence, we’re talking heavy eyeliner, we’re talking fake blood, we’re talking people rolled in plastic wrap, and we’re talking big old boxy television monitors, which have become to installation artists what vinyl records are to indie rock bands. Simulated violence? Constant. Simulated sex? Of course: blizzards of it.
When you need some juicy psychodrama, desperate violence, and sick sexual obsession to fuel your semi-abstract avant-garde installation, there’s no better place to shop than the shelf of classic German drama. The text serving as inspiration here is Woyzeck, the unfinished 19th century play by Georg Büchner based on the true story of a mind-addled soldier who killed his wife in a jealous rage. The reason for Woyzeck’s jealousy is his girlfriend’s affair with, or perhaps rape by (it’s a matter of interpretation), a good-looking drum major. The Woyzeck Project, according to the Southern’s website, presents the theater as the interior of Büchner’s “tangled mind.” The cast of dozens combines members of Flink’s Black Label Movement company and students from the University of Minnesota.
|the woyzeck project, presented through november 6 at the southern theater. for information and tickets ($22), see southerntheater.org|
Besides the sheer scope of the thing, the best things about The Woyzeck Project are the striking visual tableaus. As you wind your way into the heart of the theater, the show takes on the aspect of a Macy’s Christmas display: you walk along looking at the life-size dioramas in which characters enact repetitive movements. The only differences are that there are contorting human dancers instead of animatronic figures, there’s fake blood instead of fake snow, and tobogganing only happens in the sense of dry-humping in the sexual position by that name.
There are dark wonders to behold here: a tight hallway lined on three sides with (natch) moaning men and women; a deep well of (natch) plastic sheeting at the bottom of which a character labors at a (natch) bloody operating table; dancers in pairs performing on cascading platforms that you may at first mistake for mirror reflections of the first; and the giant cage full of (natch) screaming, (natch) thrashing, (natch) humping performers that’s revealed when a curtain of (natch) plastic sheeting is lifted from the Southern stage.
For all the blood and sex and plastic, though, the show feels curiously safe. Seifert, Flink, and Sommers turn the knob to 11 so quickly that by the time you make it into the theater, there’s no real shock left. The performers look like they’re voguing for a photo shoot (which, in fact, they are) rather than actually manifesting psychological unrest, and it’s almost immediately clear that you as an audience member aren’t going to be put in an uncomfortable position. There are a lot of missed opportunities here. For example, the fact of photography being encouraged: what this means is that everyone’s walking through and snapping photos of good-looking young people writhing around in their underwear. It wouldn’t be difficult to make us feel uncomfortable about that, to introduce a note of uncertainty, to unsettle us, to provoke us.
Similarly, the narrative is circled around and touched on and repeated and revisited so many times that there’s little sense of dramatic progression beyond that which comes from the physical act of moving through the space. There’s a murder at the end, but in a show that’s all knives and blood for a solid 20 minutes, a murder is not particularly horrifying. The ensemble choreography we see in the chain-link cage is well-executed, but the repeating cycles of lying prone, clustering fearfully together, and frenetically copulating similarly fail to create a sense of momentum. In this context, the remaining text of the piece comes as too little, too late.
That said, The Woyzeck Project is a hugely ambitious and certainly impressive achievement. If the techniques of site-specific theater aren’t used to the dramatic effect seen in shows like Strange Love, The Thing, and The Polish Pugilist, they are nonetheless used to create an effect that is dramatic. Does that make sense? Never mind—put on your post-modern nonexistent 3D psychodrama glasses, and pass the popcorn.