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Puppets of apartheid 

Georg Büchner's tragedy, transposed to 1950s South Africa in Woyzeck on the Highveld

High-wire Highveld

High-wire Highveld

John Hodgkiss

Georg Büchner's Woyzeck was Brechtian about 60 years before the birth of Bertolt Brecht. Probably the most celebrated unfinished play in history, the fragment Büchner left when he died in 1837 tells the story of a lowly German soldier, Franz Woyzeck, who serves an effete captain, endures experiments administered by a quack doctor, and gets cuckolded by his common-law wife. In a classic fit of misdirected rage, he kills the wife.

Two important South African cultural institutions, Handspring Puppet Theatre and visual artist-filmmaker William Kentridge, took an interest in Woyzeck during the early 1990s, just as their nation was shaking off apartheid. They transposed the story to industrial Johannesburg, circa 1956, while turning Franz into a weary black man—and, not incidentally, a puppet. Their adaptation, Woyzeck on the Highveld, is a mournful, gorgeous progress through the lumpen tragedy, punctuated by the tremulous voice of a lone African singer and the acid interjections of a wised-up human narrator. Designed and originally directed by Kentridge, the action unfolds before projected animations in which a dirty charcoal sky discloses arcane but resonant symbols: a horseshoe magnet, a bowl, the joint between two bones. At night, constellated stars form a boot or faces. The puppets themselves have elegant sculpted-wood heads, inlaid with what look like onyx eyes. The faces of the black characters are left rough, so that it's clear they've been gouged into shape with a hammer and chisel.

Handspring's Chicago performance of Woyzeck on the Highveld dovetails with "MCA DNA: William Kentridge," an exhibit of Kentridge drawings, films, and collage owned by the Museum of Contemporary Art (through 3/17: Tue 10 AM-8 PM, Wed-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, $7-$12, free for Illinois residents on Tuesdays).

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