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In the sleek, two-story lobby of the Potiker Theater, a soldier saluted, quarter-turned to the east, shoveled imaginary dirt, quarter-turned to the south, peeled imaginary potatoes, turned west, lifted imaginary weights, turned back to where he started, and saluted again. And again.

The soldier made his counterclockwise rounds in a glass booth. A black, elbow-length rubber glove protruded inside the glass. Like scientists studying viral behavior, spectators could reach their right hand into the glove and touch the soldier, free from infection. One tried to break his concentration. Another stroked him on the back, wanting to disrupt his routine with brief, humane contact.

Didn’t happen. The soldier continued his robotic rota as if this were all he knew.

In Gabor Tompa’s spectacular production, which had a too-brief run at UCSD last week, the soldier was Franz Woyzeck. By the time we entered the theater, ordered to our seats by a pack of ragtag soldiers, we were already deep into Georg Buchner’s fragmentary drama (1837) — possibly the first in theatrical history to have a nobody as its protagonist.

Woyzeck is the lab rat of an animalistic, urges-first society. Unlike those around him, who kill their free time by blacking out, he sees accurately. If he could articulate his observations, he’d be a visionary. But he speaks only verbal pulses. Some of these make enough sense to threaten the status quo, as when he tells his sadistic captain that the poor are, at best, stagehands in this world and the next: “If we ever got to heaven, we’d have to help out with the thunder.”

As Woyzeck watches his beloved Marie dancing with the Drum Major, he blurts, “Why doesn’t God blow out the sun, so that everything can roll around in lust.” Most of his insights flash like summer lightning, too fast for those around him — sedated to the hilt — to grasp. The higher ups (just as oppressed as everyone else and just as unable to see it) perform bizarre experiments on the lowly soldier to turn his visions into innocuous delusions. For three months, he eats nothing but dried peas.

They’ve already made the Fool an object lesson. He’s an example of how art improves people: they put him in a straitjacket.

Aided by scenic designer Kristin Ellert’s spare, institutional look — concrete walls with round vent fans — the director flirted, almost dangerously, with repeated actions. Woyzeck’s is a world of near-absolute mindlessness. So, for example, Tompa had Woyzeck carry a bucket of water across the stage and pour it into his friend’s bucket. Then the friend, Andres, carried his bucket to Woyzeck’s and poured the water back. They continued way past the point where the point’s been made. Like Beckett, Tompa didn’t just present an image of monotony, he ingrained it in the audience.

At another point, underscored by a Bach chorale, soldiers wind-sprinted from the dark rear wall forward into the light, stopped, and ran back so many times you wanted to shout, “All right, already!” Somewhere during this process, the sounds of the boots on the plank-wood floor began to feel rhythmic. The activity had an order, like a bass-line for the Bach, and the monotony became a choreographed, Woyzeckian production number — art in a straitjacket: ungainly soldiers scamper-dancing to music, into the light and back.

No one knows the actual sequence of Buchner’s 12 scenes. Except for one or two, you could shuffle them like cards because he was more concerned with a condition — endemic oppression — than its causes. In Tompa’s version, almost every scene had an undertow: the visual, often brutal, clashed with music, often beautiful, even majestic. Activity on the hardwood added to the soundscape. When an actor kicked a pile of dry peas, they scuttled across the floor in a sunburst of green but clattered like a cornered rattlesnake.

As Woyzeck, tall Daniel Rubiano had a little boy’s voice — not cute or deliberately endearing, but full of out-loud wonderment why others couldn’t see the obvious (in this world, clear-sightedness is the most radical act of all). Somehow he missed the indoctrination sessions, where the poor learned to regard injustice as proper reckoning. In the end, Woyzeck pays for his truancy.

Overall, the production showed us how Woyzeck sees and hears: shards of clarity amid jumble, falsehood beneath the veneer, nuance amid repetition. Unlike most stagings of Woyzeck, which foreground the protagonist, Tompa gave the populace full voice. They marched, lusted, slid down fire-poles, and created such a dumbed-down, follow-the-leader world they formed a collective monster.

Woyzeck, by Georg Buchner
UCSD Theatre and Dance, Potiker Theatre, UCSD
Directed by Gabor Tompa; cast: Daniel Rubiano, Matthew Bovee, Claire Kaplan, Josh Adams, Spencer Howard, Daniel K. Isaac, Michael Kelly, Justin O’Neill, Brett Rader, Christina Cervenka, Al Evangelista, Ray Dequina, Meghan McCauley, Kendra Miller; scenic design, Kristin Ellert; costumes, Jaymee Ngernwichit; lighting, Sarah Kranz; composition/sound designer, Toby Jaguar Algya
Run concluded.

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