Georg Buchner's nihilistic tragedy "Woyzeck" isn't typical open-air summer theater fare. But this 19th-century true story of a German soldier who murdered his common-law wife is receiving an intense production -- the first show of the Bowman Ensemble's sixth season -- that is well-suited to its outdoor setting on the grounds of McDonogh School.
On the most obvious level, the setting enhances the scenes that take place outside. In addition, it emphasizes Buchner's fascination with nature, which, as critic Robert Brustein has written, was the playwright's "goddess . . . violent, accidental and ominous in the extreme." (This notion was reinforced by last weekend's performances; Friday's opening was rained out, and on Saturday, brief flashes of lightning illuminated the final scenes.)
Though the script -- left unfinished at Buchner's death and translated here by John Mackendrick -- raises issues of class differences, the existence of free will and the humanitarian limits of scientific experimentation, the overriding theme of the production, as directed by Matthew Ramsay, is human nature gone awry.
Almost everyone in Woyzeck's life comments on his increasing madness. His boss, the captain, compares him to "an open razor." Marie, the common-law wife who has bornehim a child, says, "Thinking's wound his mind up like a watch spring, it'll break one [of] these days."
These descriptions fit Ron Bopst's approach to the title character, whom he portrays as a simple soul overwhelmed by poverty, fatherhood and by finding himself at the mercy of men who are smarter and slier. Initially troubled by visions of doom, and later by gossipy hints of Marie's infidelity, Woyzeck falls into a kind of frenzied delirium.
Bopst's Woyzeck begins to resemble a rat in a maze, an image appropriate to the purposes of the doctor who subjects him to experiments calculated to hasten his insanity. J. M. McDonough plays this unethical man of medicine not merely as a mad scientist but as one who's especially dangerous because -- even as he licks the tissue samples he removes during an autopsy -- he's convinced he's being sane and scientific.
Bruce Leipold, as Woyzeck's patronizing captain, is another character unflinchingly convinced he's right -- right in criticizing Woyzeck for lacking morals, right in kidding him about the drum major (Dan Garrett) who's taken up with Marie, and right in predicting that Woyzeck's frantic behavior will be his downfall.
In this bleak look at the human condition, those who question their circumstances -- Woyzeck and Marie -- come to tragic ends. And though Marie's affair might make her seem less than an innocent victim of a disadvantaged life, one of the production's more interesting touches is the tiny, upper-level room that set designer Candace Cole has fashioned as Marie's home. Here we see that Dianne Signiski's sweet-tempered Marie is as trapped physically as Woyzeck is trapped mentally.
A shroud of fatalism hangs over the Bowman Ensemble's "Woyzeck." It's reinforced by the appearances of a fairy-tale-like character of an old woman at the beginning and end of the production, as well as by the fate of Woyzeck's close friend, Andres, who seems destined to follow in the footsteps of his deranged friend.
But just as Shawn Fagan's portrayal elicits empathy for Andres, so do Bopst and Signiski make us mourn Woyzeck and Marie. And, at the same time, this dark production leads us to question a social system, in many ways similar to our own, that not only allows such tragedies to occur, but may even abet them.
Where: Bowman Ensemble at Child's Memorial, McDonogh School, 8600 McDonogh Road, Owings Mills
When: 8 p.m. today through Sunday and July 5-July 8
Call: (410) 889-0406