'Woyzeck' gives old tale fresh spin

In 1821, German wigmaker and soldier Johann Christian Woyzeck murdered the woman he had been living with in a fit of jealousy, and was later beheaded for his crime. This murder has resonated for the past two centuries in a variety of works, including a play by Georg Bucher, a film by Werner Herzog, and even an opera crafted by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits.

Filmmaker William Kentridge and the artists from the Handspring Puppet Company have created their own interpretation of the work, moving the action from 19th-century Germany to Jonannesburg in 1956 at the advent of South African apartheid.

In Woyzeck on the Highveld, which plays this weekend at the Walker Art Center as part of the New Adventures in Puppetry series, the title character is a migrant worker increasingly trapped by the forces around him. Though there are flashes of vivacity and humor in the beginning, Woyzeck's life becomes increasingly bleak as the forces of authority begin to grind away his humanity.

The advance screener provided showcases the merging of several distinct art forms, including puppetry, actors, and film. The work by Kentridge especially gives the entire piece an otherworldly aura, as the dreams and nightmares of the characters are brought to life through seemingly simple animation.

This all helps to bring the roughly-hewn puppets to life, as we see the pressures on Woyzeck, especially from those in authority, including the man of the house where he works as a servant, and the doctor who prods and pokes him with little concern for the person underneath.

There are also flashes of humor, often brought to light by the efforts of the puppeteers or in visual jokes between the characters onstage and the film being shown behind them.

It's tough to judge a live performance based on a tape, but the work certainly looks intriguing and it has received solid notices through the decades (it first premiered in 1992 and has been revived on rare occasions since). Think of it as a bit of ying to Avenue Q's yang.

Woyzeck on the Highveld runs Thursday through Saturday.