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Wozzeck/Woyzeck Directed by Misha Aster At the Bathurst Street Theatre in Toronto on Friday

S ometimes the most successful theatrical effects happen before the show begins. The Theatre of Ideas managed to generate a small windstorm of publicity for its debut effort, despite the fact this is a semi-professional production led by an unknown young director.

It's an ambitious small show propelled by a couple of big what-ifs from director Misha Aster. What if elements of Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck were merged with parts of its source play, Georg Buchner's Woyzeck? And what if the title character were not just inarticulate, as he is in both works, but virtually mute?

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The second of these questions was swiftly answered. Take away Wozzeck's power of speech (and song), and you are left, literally, with a poor dumb sap who can only respond to the indignities loaded on him with an anguished game of charades.

The merger question never did achieve a satisfactory resolution. Like the title character, the bilingual show became an inarticulate remnant of its former selves. It was successful neither as opera nor as musically upholstered drama. Nor did it break free into some other kind of theatre, in which music intended to deliver a sung text could somehow be persuaded to support mime and the spoken word.

Berg's instrumental score remained more or less intact, in a suave chamber-orchestra version by John Rea. But with the cast reduced from 11 to four and most of the vocal parts excised, the strong illustrative character of Berg's music often had nothing to illustrate. Interpolations from the play did nothing to support the narrative structure, which was reduced to a tottering skeleton.

Actor Jonno Roberts left no tic untried as Wozzeck, whose spasms and struggles for speech seemed less like symptoms of existential unease than of severe schizophrenia. Renée Salewski (Marie) showed off a bright soprano and a promising lyric style, though her characterization started small and stayed that way.

Baritone Doug MacNaughton delivered an aptly savage performance as the Doctor, but was pushed beyond his natural limits when obliged to sing a scene as the Captain, scored for tenor. Actor Andrew Bunker, attempting to incorporate the genial Andres and the brutal Drum Major, emerged with an unresolved muddle of both.

Lighting designer Bradley Trenaman found some inventive ways to define the stark raked stage, including a nice bit of work with half a dozen travelling spotlights.

Conductor Paul Andres Mahr attempted to extract a smooth performance of the difficult score from the ensemble of 21 students or recent graduates from the Glenn Gould Professional School and the Vienna Conservatory. They played gamely, sometimes with finesse, though one often had to hang on tight and hope they were having a good educational experience. Wozzeck / Woyzeck continues at Bathurst Street Theatre through Sept. 15.

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