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THEATER BEAT

Dark Pitch of 'Private Battle' Proves Eerie

May 23, 1997|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY

Entering Actors' Gang's El Centro space, we are immediately forewarned by the severed dolls' heads tucked in the recesses of Richard Hoover's cleverly makeshift set. This is an arena for alienation, a dark and dreadful place.

In one sense, Lynn Manning's "Private Battle," adapted from Georg Buchner's visionary drama "Woyzeck," is rigorously faithful to the original. There's the aptly named Private Battle (Jon Clair), a poor Army barber who, like Woyzeck, moonlights as a human guinea pig for a mad doctor (Dean Robinson). When Battle's lover Marie (Susan Patterson) sexually betrays him, Battle, also like Woyzeck, slips into insanity and violence.

Updated to a present-day Army base in Fort Campbell, Ky., "Battle" has, scene by scene, roughly the same outline as its source material. But, while she performs wonders of timing and composition, director Beth Milles is perhaps too faithful to the original. Milles gives us little sense of this particular time and place, losing many of both Manning's and Buchner's subtexts in her technically impressive but thematically unspecific approach.

These limitations aside, however, Manning's adaptation has an almost eerie topicality, as if it were rewritten the evening before to suit current headlines. Woyzeck's societal alienation results largely from his poverty; former gang member Battle is isolated by race. Woyzeck hears vague voices in his head; Battle evolves an elaborate conspiracy theory in the best tradition of today's lunatic fringe. And the Doctor's inhumane efforts to find a male contraceptive, using primarily African American test subjects like Battle, echoes the infamous Tuskegee experiments.

Unlike Buchner's cold-blooded dire vision, Manning's Weltschmerz is informed by a rich sensuality, a visceral marriage of sex and death. Woyzeck ignores his "bastard" offspring by Marie; Battle delights in his child, but destroys it. Manning himself takes the stage at intervals to croon bawdy blues songs in wry counterpoint to the spiraling human catastrophe. It's a valiant cheekiness, a dry-mouthed whistle in the shadow of the gallows.

* "Private Battle," Actors' Gang El Centro, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends June 8. $12. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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