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Theater Thu Apr 28 2011

Woyzeck, Pony, and the Working-Class Tragedy


(left to right) Erin Barlow (Kathë), Ryan Bollettino (Herr Doktor) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck) in The Hypocrites production of Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, adapted and directed by The Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney. Photo by Ryan Bourque.

About Face Theater and The Hypocrites began their "Woyzeck Project" this month, a city-wide festival celebrating the classic proletariat tale, Woyzeck-- an avant-garde working-class tragedy, left unfinished by Georg Büchner upon his death in 1837.

The festival is anchored by About Face's production of Pony and The Hypocrites' world premier adaptation of Woyzeck. I caught both of them in a double feature of sorts last Sunday at Chopin Theater.


The first thing you will notice about Woyzeck, as with most plays, is the set. And this is a gorgeous set by Tom Burch. It is minimal in the sense that you can tell you're outside, in the woods somewhere, but there are not trees and moss--not much, anyway. There is, however, a white deer, a collection of tree stumps, two cabinets and a brook/river--running with real water. The play opens gradually with a man in a hazmat suit and a respirator mopping up the stage around another figure, also in a hazmat suit, who is presumably dead. Behind a translucent sheet at the back of the stage, we see five more figures, also wearing respirators, but with no hazmat suits--only long underwear and combat boots. As the play begins, the figures quickly change costumes onstage while aggressively singing a powerful opening number. At this point it should be mentioned that this is, in a sense, a musical--in that there is singing. But make no mistake, this is not a musical in an traditional sense (or anything else in any traditional sense, for that matter).

The second major thing you will probably notice about Woyzeck is that the language is fragmented, to say the least--as if it were translated directly and literally from German, with all the awkward sentence structure that comes with that. The language is incredibly playful and poetic, too. Much like Shakespeare. And much like Shakespeare, you likely won't understand every single sentence that hastily spills out, but you'll get the gist of what's going on.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Hypocrite's Woyzeck is that every actor is onstage at all times, and if they're not actively participating in dialogue at the center of the stage, they're sitting off to the side making naturey sounds--coos, clicks, hums, whistles, etc. Key words from conversations are occasionally echoed by the "peanut gallery", as well. The effect of this is both eerie and stimulating--suggesting a sense of collective consciousness, a "we are all one" sort of vibe. And/or (depending on your state of mind) a glimpse into the mind of a maniac with some sort of multiple personality issues.

Woyzeck is a classic tale of a love triangle, complete with a classic murder/suicide ending, but the execution is anything but classic. It is disconcertingly, brutally violent and epic and deliciously avant-garde. It is quite obviously the work of Sean Graney, and is possibly his best/darkest/weirdest production to date. Graney and The Hypocrites are an invaluable staple in Chicago's experimental theater scene, now more than ever. If you only see one play in The Woyzeck Project, see this one.


(left to right) Matthew Sherbach (Heath) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre's production of Pony by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar. Photo by Michael Brosilow.


From the moment I saw this play last Sunday up until now, I have been trying to figure out how Pony (written by Sylvan Oswald and directed by About Face Artistic Director, Bonnie Metzgar) is related to Woyzeck and why they're being shown in tandem. There are few similarities other than their using (pretty much) the same set--except a lot of the cool stuff from Woyzeck's set, like the deer, was taken off and replaced by far less interesting objects--and the "Marie" character in each play is in the midst of some sort of poly-amorous drama.

The Marie in Pony is a waitress who is obsessed with a murder that took place in the woods (the murder that ends Woyzeck), and she gets off on imagining herself as the characters of that murder--both murderer and murderee. So there's that. But that aspect of Pony doesn't really seem to mesh with the rest of the plot, and, frankly, adds a cheese factor to this play. Why is this crazy chick running around the woods with a broken mirror, screaming into it and constantly having some sort of panic attack? Rather than harp on the connection between Pony and Woyzeck any further, I will just consider Pony as an autonomous piece, addressing problems related to sexuality and identity.

It works better that way, but it still doesn't work. Sure, it's great that transgender issues are beginning to be addressed comprehensively via the arts (and the media, for that matter), but Pony is grouchy, too fragmented and asks a whole lot of questions without offering any real answers. And not in a thought-provoking, art-imitates-life kind of way. In a frustrating way. How did these characters get where they are now, and where are they going? What is our trans protagonist, Pony, running from exactly? What does he want? What the hell is Marie's problem? Why is everyone so damn mean to each other?

And with that, I'll leave you with a question: What's the point?

Tickets for Pony/Woyzeck cost $28 per play or $48 for both plays, and are available at or 866-811-4111. They are both playing now through May 22. The other Woyzeck Project Festival events will be held from April 30 through May 10, and include readings, workshops, cabaret, short works, video and more.

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Ashley / April 28, 2011 10:10 AM

I disagree with you about PONY overall, but I'd like to take issue with you on a particular point. I feel that this entire review is colored by a disinterest in and disregard for trans issues. You ask what Pony is running from and what the point is. I can only understand this as a perverse refusal-unconscious I'm sure-to extend your empathetic imagination to a trans protagonist, because both questions are made perfectly clear by the play. This review made me sad.

Kelly Reaves / April 28, 2011 1:41 PM

Hi Ashley-- Sorry for making you sad. Of course it occurred to me before I started to write this review that my disappointment with PONY could be due to a lack of empathy for trans issues. But then I remembered all the amazing stories I've read/watched/heard and related to on the subject-- many of them from Gapers Block, actually-- others in film and radio. A good story doesn't require the audience to necessarily relate to the protagonist going in, but it should capture their interest and elicit empathy somewhere along the way. I decided to go ahead and write a dismissive review because PONY didn't do that for me or my guest. I will say that audiences with a particular interest in trans issues should definitely check out the play. I am curious to hear more feedback.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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