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`Woyzeck' Serves Up Existential Concerns

WOYZECK. Drama by Georg Buchner. Directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. Presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival. At the Joseph Papp Public/Newman Theater indefinitely.

`WOYZECK," written in 1837 by German playwright Georg Buchner, is at once a sensationalistic melodrama and a work of sharp-eyed social criticism. Its title character, an ordinary soldier, is a miserable and unstable man whose desperation leads him to commit a violent murder. Yet it's clear that his interior demons have exterior causes in the people and institutions around him.

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His wife humiliates him, carrying on a poorly concealed affair with a handsome drum major. The military dehumanizes him, showing no respect for his dignity. The local doctor exploits him, paying him a pittance to subsist on an inadequate diet. Buchner's play is keenly aware that none of these situations necessary or inevitable, and that the pressures on Woyzeck are brought on by institutions supposed to make life better, not worse. Woyzeck's dilemmas are symptomatic of larger problems in the social struc ture, and in the human attitudes that shape this structure.

With its mix of social concern and personal drama, "Woyzeck" is an astringent and potentially didactic play whose author wanted to communicate ideas as well as move the audience emotionally. The play's aims are complicated, however, by the fact that Buchner died at age 23, leaving the play unfinished.

"Woyzeck" exists as a group of fragments that must be placed in some kind of order by anyone wishing to stage a production of it; they add up not to a conventional drama but a sort of hard-edged collage with a disjointed quality that mirrors the increasingly fractured nature of Woyzeck's mind. The challenge is to balance the logic of its narrative with the power of its messages, allowing both to be felt but neither to predominate.

The new production by JoAnne Akalaitis, artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, does this impressively. Emphasizing the folklike elements that are a key part of Buchner's conception, it begins with a group of characters singing a hymn to pain that captures the anguish of Woyzeck's social situation.

Woyzeck's story then emerges in scenes blending peasant-class earthiness with clear compassion for the protagonist, who takes on the status of a full-fledged tragic hero despite his lowly status and frequently pathetic activity. At once precise and energetic, the production accents Buchner's most important points with vivid images that hover between the naturalistic and the surreal. The performances, led by Jesse Borrego as Woyzeck, skillfully walk the same tightrope.

Not all Ms. Akalaitis's strategies are wholly successful. Some of her devices - sudden shifts into slow motion, for instance, or the bathing of a scene in brilliant white light - smack more of avant-garde mannerism than bold inventiveness; and occasional black-and-white film clips do little to enhance the production. Also, the rhythms of Henry J. Schmidt's translation of the play seem stilted and artificial at times.

These shortcomings are more than balanced by genuinely inspired moments, however. It is a stark and somber image that embodies Akalaitis's fascination with Buchner as a playwright who wanted not to divert or entertain his audience but rather to provoke thought, stir concern, and shake up easy assumptions.

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Philip Glass wrote the modest but extremely effective score for "Woyzeck," which is supplemented with some rousingly played traditional music. Standouts in the cast include Zach Grenier as the army captain, Sheila Tousey as Woyzech's wife, and especially Denis O'Hare as the manipulative doctor. They keep the drama at high intensity for nearly all of its lean 90-minute running time.

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