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Desperation of Man at Sea Keeps 'Woyzeck' Afloat


IRVINE — Georg Buchner began writing "Woyzeck" more than 150 years ago. He was not yet 24, and he died before it was completed, leaving notes, sketches and a dramatic legacy still being fulfilled: His unfinished work sowed the seeds of absurdism, existentialism, expressionism and naturalism.

Pieced together by various writers over the decades, the play still seems ahead of its time. It is based on the true story of Franz Woyzeck, who murdered his mistress and went through a series of trials to determine if he was sane enough to be executed. In this adaptation, Keith Fowler has borrowed an ending from some earlier versions, making the crime a murder-suicide. But the crime is not the point.

Woyzeck is an Everyloser, trapped and flailing helplessly against regimentation, oppression and the societal machine that devours the good, the meek and the well-meaning.

Fowler has set the piece in Germany just before World War I--a good time and place for this story. The country is showing its muscles. Woyzeck is a barber in the German army, with a mistress and baby in a neighboring town. All but suffocated by his lot in life and the inequities of existence, he is driven to his fatal deeds by his mistress' blatant affair with his company's brutish, abusive Drum Major, as handsome and mythic a specimen as those in the German recruiting posters.

Fowler also directed the piece, and his staging is exceptional: It is theatrically exciting and dramatically commanding. Equally impressive are Karen Weber's moody, monumental setting, Mark Haines' striking choreography and the sound design (uncredited in the program). This is a world gone askew, shaggy and dingy, with flashes of gold braid and bright color to hide the dreary truth beneath.

Jeff Renard's Woyzeck is every person who ever has struggled in vain to understand society's imbalance. He is desperately at sea: Every confrontation is a terror, and the lack of comprehension that plays upon his face is stunning.

Ali Owens sometimes seems too squeaky-clean to be his brazen mistress, but she has many touching moments, whether clinging forlornly to her Franz or playing sexual games with her Drum Major. Ryan Paregien is just right in that role, with a bullying egotism that is properly exuberant and unthinking.

Jonathan David Parlow is excellent as Woyzeck's friend Andres; Peter Keane is equally strong as the stupid Captain, and, though he could have a stronger sense of inner madness, Jason Devoy's Doctor hits all the right tones.

* "Woyzeck," Village Theatre, UC Irvine (Mesa and Bridge roads). Thursday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m. Ends Saturday. $15. (714) 824-2987. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Jeff Renard: Woyzeck

Ali Owens: Marie

Ryan Paregien: Drum Major

Jason Devoy: Doctor

Peter Keane: Captain

Jonathan David Parlow: Andres

Margaret Andres: Old Woman

Heather De Michele: 2nd Barker/Peasant

Scott Humphries: 1st Barker/Soldier

A UCI Arts production of a play by Georg Buchner, Adapted and directed by Keith Fowler. Choreography: Mark Haines. Scenic design: Karen Weber. Lighting design: C. Lindsey Perkins. Costume design: Regan Norris. Stage manager: Lisa Gurule. .

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