Shorn of the grim political context in which it was born, William Kentridge's "Woyzeck on the Highveld" soars now on wings of artistry.
This mixture of puppets, visible handlers and a carnival barker played by Mncedisi Shabangu, premiered in 1992, when apartheid was in its tense endgame in Kentridge's native South Africa. At that time, "Woyzeck," which I first saw at a theater festival in Chicago in 1994, offered an arresting commentary on the ravages of an oppressive totalitarian state. The title character seemed like just one other victim of a pariah regime.
"Woyzeck," which Kentridge and Handspring Puppet Company adapted from the fragmentary play by German dramatist Georg Büchner, is the story of "a beautiful murder." In the original, Woyzeck was a soldier abused by a doctor and other authority figures. In this telling, he is a much-abused lowly worker who finds no refuge at home; his wife, Maria, has been having an affair with a miner. Woyzeck turns violently on her.
The Büchner work, incomplete at his death in 1837, received its first production in 1913. The text has given rise to many interpretations on stage and screen. Kentridge's take is gripping and evocative.
In director Luc de Wit's faithful re-staging of "Woyzeck" that opened Thursday at Walker Art Center, the political atmosphere that imbued Kentridge's remake is not entirely lost. We get a sense of it in the projected animations of broken, maimed figures traversing a desolate landscape. Sad accordion music imbues the show with its dolor and grief. But the sense of systemic oppression has receded into the background. What stands out now, in absorbing relief, is the remarkable craft and power of the piece.
The show uses Kentridge's elemental charcoal drawings, projected onto a screen for narrative and temporal depth. The production also deploys puppets that are expertly and expressively manipulated by Nkosinathi Gaar, Jason Potgieter, Hamilton Dhlamini and Busi Zokufa.
In their deeply understanding movements, including pauses, these players use puppets to evoke true pathos. There were many moments when I sat in wonder as a figure danced or expressed desire or stood there, lost in the world.
Going to the show, I was curious about how it would hold up to my memory of it and without the political order that it implicitly critiqued.
"Woyzeck" has held up quite well, thank you. The change in the larger political context in South Africa freed not only its people from oppression. The fall of apartheid may have freed "Woyzeck" as well from the shackles that bound it. Now it flies freely as potent, poignant art.
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390