By Georg Büchner; Adapted and Directed by Jonathan Barsness

Clare Schmidt and David Michael Homles in Toy Box Theatre's Woyzeck. Photo by Randy Isley.

BOTTOM LINE: A stellar adaptation of the classic tragedy with extra performance elements and a wonderful ensemble cast. This Woyzeck doesn't miss a beat.   

Toy Box Theatre's adaptation of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck is folksy and maliciously gratifying. Set in winter in a small Midwestern town, this production exposes the dire circumstances that can come from being jobless, poor, and vulnerable. In our 21st century recession, work is harder to find than ever, and the lines of class have seemingly never been drawn more clearly. For Frank Woyzeck, his place in society comes with a terrible burden - his newborn son, and his son's mother (who is not yet his wife, much to the town's chagrin) rely on Woyzeck's income for support, and without a job he is helpless in caring for his family. What that can do to a person's spirit is the subject at hand. Is Woyzeck's downward spiral the result of a broken system of survival? Woyzeck works really hard for every dollar he makes, but unfortunately manual labor and clinical testing aren't the highest paying gigs. Or rather, are the voices in his head and his subsequent demise the result of a psychological disorder, something totally out of his control?

This German play was written in 1836 and it allows for major creative license since Büchner died before it was finished. The astute Jonathan Barsness, who adapted and directed this production, has completely transformed the script while maintaining the central themes and structure. Nothing about this production feels like it's from 1836. Even the dialogue is modern, although to my recollection there aren't explicit references to anything inherently 2010. But the story itself is wildly universal, and set in a depressed blue-collar American town, it's as fresh as ever. That theme of inalterable human suffering clearly transgresses centuries and cultures.

Depressing? Totally. Engrossing? Quite. Woyzeck's struggle to make ends meet is not only totally relatable, but Barsness manipulates the action so it unfolds with a hopeful undertone. This tragedy doesn't feel like one...I mean, until it does. And that is a tribute to this smart retelling. Woyzeck (played passionately by David Michael Holmes) evokes a suffering that is set against the town's financially and emotionally stable "others" like the Mayor and the Doctor. They seem to have it easy and Woyzeck (sweating profusely and getting crazier by the second) appears a pathetic weakling in comparison. Even the studly firefighter (Ryan Colwell), who, as it turns out, is banging Woyzeck's girlfriend Marie (Clare Schmidt), seems to have it together.

Evocative of "Into the Wild" with its chilly surroundings and chillier subtext, Woyzeck is a tale about survival skills. Whether Woyzeck can control his situation or not, how he comes to terms with it is the question at hand. In this tragedy, it's easy to be sympathetic toward the hero - whether his craziness comes from an utter lack of self worth or from something medically out of his control, it's a tough break either way.

Toy Box Theatre utilizes interesting performance elements, such as modern dance and a live band, to fill out the story. Both contribute to the visceral nature of the production. The choreography (by Elisabeth Motley, performed by Amy Blumberg) brings to life a questionable hallucination, and the music adds to the overall tone of the show. Three-person ensemble Colonna Sonora joins Toy Box again (they provided the music for 2009's Tis Pity She's A Whore). They rock out (maybe "folk out" is more appropriate) on acoustic guitars, harmonica, violin, fiddle and keyboard between scenes and as an underscore. As far as I'm concerned, live music is always a good idea.

This ambitious production is highly effective and polished. Lighting designer Alex Moore makes able use of the small plot and set designer Kacie Hultren converts the intimate black box into a vast winter landscape. The story is comprised of several small scenes, and between the energetic cast and the clean transitions, it clips along nicely. At the risk of unnecessarily qualifying Woyzeck, it's worth noting that its production value is impressive. It feels rehearsed, prepared, and more than anything, delighted to entertain its audience.

(Woyzeck plays at Choicirciati Cultural Center, 65 East 4th Street, through November 12, 2010. Remaining performances are October 29 and 30 at 8pm; October 31 at 3pm; November 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11 and 12 at 8pm. Tickets are $18 and are available at