The wheelhouse of Pantagleize Theatre Company has been European plays that you don't see staged often these days, often from the 20th century. So it is fitting that it has gone back to the early-mid-19th century for a play that influenced, perhaps indirectly, many of the writers it has presented in its history: Georg Büchner's 1836 tragedy Woyzeck.
It was unfinished, as the brilliant Büchner died at age 23, having written three plays, this one seminal in the development of drama. It wouldn't be published until decades later, and its importance was not realized until even later, but it looks ahead to such dramatic movements as naturalism, expressionism and Theater of the Absurd.
It has been adapted many ways, most famously as an opera by Alban Berg, and Pantagleize lets director/adaptor Kami Rogers put her own stamp on it. She imagines it as a sideshow, taking it out of the original military setting and into a world occupied by circus freaks.
The act of the title character, played by Michael Muller, is a "hunger artist" (a clever nod to Kafka), a human skeleton who starves, only eating peas, for a living. The woman he loves, Marie (Madeleine Bourgeois), mother of a bastard child, is assistant to the Knife Thrower (Seth Johnston). (The availability of knives therefore becomes akin to Chekhov's Gun, as a device.)
The character of the Drum Major becomes a Strongman (Billy Ayers), Andres (Timothy Crabb) is a clown and the dominatrixlike Ringleader (Elizabeth Lambert) is a mix of the Doctor and Drum Major.
Woyzeck is one of the great, mopey tragic characters, who wonders, "How can mortal sin be so beautiful?" and ponders the nature of humans and the effects of money. Setting it in this sadistic and surrealistic circus world almost adds more poignancy to his depression and anger, if only the production (directed by Rogers) took that metaphor to a deeper, more grotesque place. A major missed opportunity comes in the drab costumes, by Christina Garcia. Except for the Ring Leader and Andres, you'd never guess it was a circus by the perplexing costumes of the Strongman and Knife Thrower.
In acting and concept, though, it's definitely one of Pantagleize's strongest shows, with standout turns from Johnston and Lambert. Muller is too young looking (What is he, 16?), and although he delivers some lines compellingly and there's a sadness behind those crazed eyes, it's hard to pull off a character of such depth without at least the appearance of emotional maturity.
Büchner's unfinished ending has been imagined in different ways, often with Woyzeck, having committed his final, fatal act, wading deeper into a lake, presumably killing himself. Rogers inventively takes the idea of water and uses it an inventive way, although her ending casts a final judgment that takes away from the power of the extra torment Woyzeck might have put himself through.
It doesn't entirely work, but it's still a bold production that is worth seeing.