Brent Yoshikami, left, is a doctor tending to Justin Young as the disturbed Woyzeck in Pure Theatre's production of "Woyzeck." Reb Beau Allen, right, plays the Drum Major.

Who’s crazy in this
asylum? It’s hard to tell

"Woyzeck": Presented by Pure Theatre at Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St. at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday. Tickets: $5. Call 536-4441.

In "Woyzeck," are we watching inmates in an asylum acting out the story of a doomed soldier's act of murder, or was 19th-century playwright Georg Buchner saying that European society itself was insane?

Nobody can be certain because Buchner died before he finished the script, and it wasn't until 42 years later that an edited and abridged version was published, but Pure Theater (formerly Cruel Theatre) delivers its own version with the Dark Night Production at Kumu Kahua.

The cast is already deployed across the set and up into the seating areas when the doors open. One player lies motionless as if dead. Others crouch doglike -- no, make that wolflike, growling and snarling as though in a nightmare. The cast wears dirty white T-shirts and the type of trousers that might be issued to patients in a facility for the criminally insane -- and all are acting the part.

The story unfolds in a jolting and challenging style that is often difficult to follow. Who some of these characters are and why Buchner thought them relevant to this dark story of love, poverty, betrayal and revenge remain unclear and open to interpretation.

Woyzeck (Justin Young) is a humble, working-class, low-ranking soldier who has fathered a child by the beautiful and sensual Marie (Danel Verdugo). It wasn't clear during Monday's opening night performance whether Marie is a prostitute or if "proper" women define her as a woman of low morality because she had a child out of wedlock.

Whatever Marie's situation may be, she catches the eye of the handsome and sexually aggressive Drum Major (Reb Beau Allen), who seems to have more in the way of material goods than Woyzeck ever will.

Woyzeck and Marie grow estranged. As Woyzeck is slowly seduced by the voices in his head, he also comes to the attention of a bizarre doctor (Brent Yoshikami) -- who describes standing on a roof and remembering that it was from a rooftop that David first saw Bathsheba bathing, but, alas, there are no naked women in view -- and discusses his plight as a member of the lower classes with his unit commander, the Captain (Nicolas Logue).

When the Captain lectures Woyzeck about the shamefulness of having no morality or virtue, Woyzeck replies, "If you don't have money, how can you have virtue? Us common people act as nature tells us."

Marie cries as she reads the story of Jesus sparing a fallen woman's life with the instruction to "go and sin no more," but where is Jesus when she needs him?

As with many of director Kinoshita's Cruel Theatre projects, "Woyzeck" entertains more by what it does than with the story it tells, and by the mechanics of the performers' work rather than by engendering any empathy for the characters.

Verdugo and Allen smolder as the illicit lovers, and Verdugo also gives a convincing performance in the Bible-reading scene.

Lisa Nilsen and Shawn A. Thomsen join Allen, Logue and Yoshikami in playing the kaleidoscopic cast of additional characters that Woyzeck and Marie encounter on their downward spiral.

Kinoshita explains in her extensive director's notes that "in Buchnerian terms madness is an escape from the real madness of society ... pretending at virtue or free will."

Those of similar mind-set, and fans of Kinoshita's previous work as a performer and director, will find "Woyzeck" well worth discovering as an hour of challenging entertainment.

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