Woyzeck…the Musical! (With zombies. Yes, zombies)

woyzeck poster

At first I thought that Yun Ho-Jin, the so-called “godfather” of the Korean musical, didn’t know where to stylistically–musically or dramaturgically–place his newest creation, Woyzeck. Based on Büchner’s fragmented and unfinished script, this musical is a grab-bag of visual references to iconic images from the likes of Chicago and Metropolis, and sounds like a mixed-CD sampler of genres–the bust-yer-gut Broadway anthem a la Rent, the soaring, vaguely religious or patriotic melody accompanied by flute and drum reminiscent of The Lion King, a Latin salsa, a Polka-inspired dance song, and good old-fashioned love songs, among others. (I’d heard that underground British band The Singing Lions would be collaborating on the music, which might have lent some continuity to the score, but at rise, the conductor cues a piano that is soon joined with what sounded like a basic live plus synthesized orchestra. If one expected a Brechtian exposure of the instrumentalists, this was nowhere to be found.)

Now, this heady mix of styles and genres isn’t necessarily a problem, and as the show progressed, I started to see how Yun’s refusal to set a style and stick with it could actually be read as a brilliant theatricalization of our title character’s own patch-work mental landscape. Woyzeck is many characters in one, just like this musical is many musicals in one: the tender father, the sensuous lover, the soldier, the sycophant, the friend, the murderer. This all combines, though, to render Woyzeck the object of the Doctor’s scientific experiment, rather than a fully human being. Likewise, could Yun be inviting his audience to try to isolate what can’t be defined, to objectify and scrutinize his creation, hoping that in doing so, we find we’ve turned our microscopes back around on ourselves? Perhaps. One might leave Seoul’s LG Art Center believing that Yun’s Woyzeck suffers merely from being newly produced and has not yet found the footing that will make it a cohesive performance. Or, like me, you might be convinced that he’s something of a theatrical genius.

Most scenes reference a different style or genre. Woyzeck’s visit to the knife shop is a Sweeney Todd-ish musical nightmare, with zombie-like characters that offer Woyzeck the weapons with which they had been killed–weapons that still protrude from their bodies. A ghoulish man dislodges a hatchet from his head, and a woman draws a knife from her heart. Early on, in the carnival scene where Marie is tempted away from Woyzeck’s side by the Drum Major, the show seemed almost a watered-down family version of Woyzeck, if such a thing is possible. The carnival setting is fun and silly, doing nothing to create the ominous foreboding of Büchner’s original script, failing to play up the disturbing potential of circus sideshow freaks in cages. While red and white festival lights descend like bunting from above, the chorus, dressed like carnival clowns and circus performers in costumes that seem a little too bright, clean, and colorful, wheel on circus cages which, when their curtains are lifted, reveal the “freaks” within: a mermaid (a stocky man dressed in blue sequins with a long blonde wig, which draws a laugh from the audience) and a werewolf (a masked actor who grasps the bars of his cage and “howls”), while a pair of conjoined twin girls, connected by a Shirley Temple-style dress and wearing four knee-socks, prance at the behest of the ringmaster. The twins are also played by two male actors. In fact, much of the “freakiness” of the circus sideshow seems to rely upon cross-dressing, and the chuckles that this elicits are very tame, almost wholesome. This family funfair, rather than carnival freakshow, culminates in the demonstration of the genius horse who can tell time. Played by one actor in a costume with long dangling forelegs, the horse seems to come straight out of children’s morning television—with the exception of its enormous penis. The ringmaster and horse routine revolves around a classic gag that anyone familiar with traditional Korean masked performance would immediately recognize: as the ringmaster demonstrates the fine qualities of the horse, it lifts its leg and “urinates” on the crowd. In the Hahoe T’al Chum, Korea’s intangible cultural property number sixty-nine, which is often performed at national festivals, the butcher’s bull also “urinates” on the audience, and the humor of the butcher’s monolog as he slices open the bull’s carcass also has to do with its large genitals. It’s here that the humor of the scene broadens from the fun into the ridiculous, and the darker undercurrents one may have been waiting for start to emerge. As the circus distracts Woyzeck, the Drum Major leads Marie, still carrying her baby wrapped in a blanket, to a rock in the grass, where he convinces her to lift her skirts for him. Now we move into the decidedly campy: when Marie sets the “baby” on the ground so as to free her arms, the Drum Major, with a twisted grimace, uses his foot to shove it further aside. The lights go down on that disturbing image.

The show seems to finally find its dramaturgical footing during the Doctor’s lecture to his medical students. The medical academy’s observation theatre is suggested by flying down a bright-white square flat directly center stage. The concentric semi-circles of its design is art-deco. As the chorus of white lab-coat-clad students parade around Woyzeck, violently poking him with their pens (among other indignities), and carrying bright red or green exam folders, they cast clear-cut black shadows on the white flat. Visually, this scene comes straight out of an Elmer Rice play from the 1920s; its stylistic expressionism is more The Adding Machine than The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The references don’t stop there. The shaking Woyzeck, at the culmination of the Doctor’s demonstration, is hooked up by two attendants in dark-blue worker’s coveralls to an electric chair, with a metal carapace for his head attached to coils of silver wire. When the Doctor turns the switch and Woyzeck begins to fry, lights pulsing from white to red, one can’t help but see the automaton of Metropolis. Finally, by contrasting the gestus of the chorus itself to Woyzeck’s own, this scene achieved the powerful alienation that perhaps Yun had been striving for. The medical students’ and the doctor’s complicated dance routine was visually and vocally rousing and impressive. But as they kick and twirl, mugging hilariously to the audience, Woyzeck stoops on the examination podium, or slumps in the electric chair, staring straight ahead with vacant eyes. Wearing only a loincloth, his naked body is vulnerable compared to the bright-white lab coats of the chorus. As the medical student chorus builds up to the final climax of the routine, Woyzeck begins to scream. His screams clash discordantly with the chorus, who cheerfully continue their routine, stepping around Woyzeck when they need to, who drops to the floor to writhe and scream in agony. The gaiety of the musical number becomes increasingly menacing and sinister as Woyzeck physically deteriorates before our very eyes. The number comes to a triumphant finish with a major chord from the orchestra and crashing cymbals, the medical student chorus striking a Broadway pose with arms thrown, hips thrust. Immediately, an intense red spotlight comes down on Woyzeck, still writhing in agony and screaming. Then blackout.

It was here that the potential of a Broadway-style musical version of Woyzeck was finally realized. While the Berg opera version and Robert Wilson’s and Tom Waits’ musical version have also explored the use of music to capture Woyzeck‘s themes of love, loss, and the insidiousness of social control, Yun achieved something unique: he allowed the conservative, formalistic gestus of the Broadway-style musical to clash with the modern gestus of Buchner’s script. The effect, when you get there, is truly stunning.

With this alienation effect achieved, the set design begins to speak significantly, seeming to position the characters between partnering forces: the military and industrial capital. The open, natural space center stage, hung behind with a versatile scrim that bleeds from tones of royal blue and black to red-orange and gold–sometimes hung with a milky, oversized moon—is framed by tall clusters of dry, rustling grasses, hinting at an unseen water’s edge. In contrast to this natural space, the stage is flanked right and left by dark, imposing structures. Stage left are two overlapping flats that extend up into the flies, painted black and with the horizontal lines of their ribbing exposed. Their shape evokes military boots, with stubbed toes ready to march across the stage toward the stage right structure, which looks like nine cargo shipping containers stacked upon one another, with their short ends extending about a quarter of their length onto the stage. As the show progresses, these shipping containers extend in and out of the stack, like some sort of imposing, oversized filing cabinet, a la Accidental Death of an Anarchist, or a joy-killing Rubik’s cube. Marie’s apartment is the middle box, with a balcony that looks down to the stage and a bassinet for the baby; the bottom downstage box is the Officer’s quarters and the military barracks; the upstage-most stack of three containers fully extends, in a scene depicting the debauchery of the Drum Major, into a purple-lit brothel, with ladies of the evening posing lasciviously in each of the six upstairs windows, recalling the iconic jail house of Chicago, and a bar pulsing below. Later, the bar transforms into the shop where Woyzeck purchases his knife.

As with the ending of the first half, in a similar way, Woyzeck’s murder of Marie achieves a powerful distanciation when it is tenderly carried out in a scene that is a sweet love song. Woyzeck and Marie forgive one another and make amends. In a highly disturbing as well as beautiful gesture, Woyzeck slits Marie’s throat as though her were embracing her, slowly and gently; the murder becomes an act of love, not a gruesome fit of jealous rage. The love duet here is again the musical gestus that is contrasted to Woyzeck’s slow embrace of Marie, who trustingly stays in his arms as he draws the knife from his shirt, then gently draws the tip across her neck. They slowly sink backward, almost like lovers whose kiss turns away from the audience to suggest the continuation of lovemaking. As Woyzeck cuts Marie’s throat the lights shift from dark red to a clear blue-white, suggesting a new clarity of mind. Where one would expect the scene to descend into red rage and darkness, it ascends into light. While the flats and the shipping containers suggest the dark forces that work unheeded to shape the lives of Woyzeck and his companions, the open sky and grass hint at the possibility of escape. And it is through these grasses, into the red sunrise, that Woyzeck carries Marie’s limp body (in a pose that calls to mind the Pieta) in the penultimate scene.

As is well known, Buchner died before he completed his script, and over the years directors have added their own endings. Autopsies have proven the popular choice. But Yun offers something completely different: the townspeople process Woyzeck and Marie’s coffins center stage, where they shower them with flower petals and sing a reprise of a soaring melody with flute and drum. Woyzeck and Marie become timeless lovers; their funeral is celebrated like a wedding. But in one last alienating twist, the audience must remind itself that the love it is celebrating is dead. In the best Broadway musical tradition, the love story ends with a wedding. Yun certainly knows his genre. But in one last brilliant contrast, the musical genre’s gestus grates sharply against the gruesome naturalism of Büchner’s modern script.

Although I’m still puzzled by many aspects of this performance (and plan to see it again) one thing is clear: the best in musical theatre these days isn’t only coming from Broadway and the West End. It’s also coming from Seoul.