10:35 AM CDT, September 28, 2012
At one point in "Woyzeck on the Highveld," the sad story of a black worker in austere 1950s South Africa, now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the worker's wife, Maria, turns to look at her husband's face. "Woyzeck," she says, "you look agitated."
And with that, Woyzeck makes a slight turn of the head and, all at once, it feels like you see into his very soul, through eyes that seem as deep as a coal pit and a skin that seems to pulse with angst. Woyzeck is, in this instance, played by a puppet (the visible puppeteer works below him, in the familiar Muppet-like tradition). But you believe in this fragile, buffeted creature as surely as if he were the object of some human Academy Award-winning performance on some big suburban screen
That intensely real quality is one of the hallmarks of the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town, regarded as one of the premiere puppet companies in the world. This is the group behind Joey, the multi-person equine puppet that has caused such a global sensation at the center of the National Theatre of Great Britain's "War Horse." But before you pack up the kids and head everyone down to "Woyzeck" at the MCA for a big weekend party, you should know that not only is this production not for children, but even most adults likely will find it a mighty bleak 90 minutes, for all of its formative brilliance. Such, of course, is the source material: Georg Buchner's "Woyzeck," an unfinished 1836 German drama about a working-class man dehumanized by various military experiences and who, after witnessing his wife's infidelity, ends up stabbing her to death. Party on.
In essence, the director, William Kentridge, has translated the piece into an industrial South African landscape (its themes of alienation are chronologically pliable, given that an alienated man can be found in all manner of circumstances). The puppets work in front of an esoteric animated film, created by Kentridge and of a charcoal-based, hand-drawn style that Chicago fans of the puppet artist Blair Thomas will find familiar. A suitably austere score accompanies this everyman's journey through a world of pipes and smells and industrial ugliness, even as he dreams of what he can see in the sky above. The show is not bereft of humor; there is an animal at one point that does tricks (and the verisimilitude of which the Handspring puppet makers are capable is not limited to two-legged creatures). But that is mostly a symbol of an atrophied popular culture; the laughs are intended to be hollow.
This is not a new work — it is a Handspring classic and, for fans of the puppet arts, this is a rare chance to see it in Chicago for one weekend only. The puppeteers are formidable in their quality and veracity of their manipulations. Whether the film actually adds to the dramatic and aesthetic cohesion is open for debate; on occasion it (and the music) cultivates some rhythms alternately jagged and soporific.
Indeed, the whole piece is resistant of really framing its story for the audience; the empathy built by the puppets does not flow similarly from the musings on the screen. So this is a piece not for all linear tastes; one suspects these artists were determined not to do too much of what the viewer could do for herself, and they were, after all, staging a fragmented text. So be prepared to float in and out of the story. But you'll never see puppets evoke more of the everyday pain of keeping on.
When: Through Sunday
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35 at 312-397-4010 or mcachicago.org
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC