The Kitchen Dog Theater Takes on Moral Failure

How Kitchen Dog’s lastest production was influenced by Tina Parker’s cold, Chris Carlos’ exile, and Dan Day’s 2-year-old son.

Kitchen Dog 3: Director Dan Day (right) says Woyzeck is more than just a play about apocalyptic dread.
It’s also a tortured vision of hope.
photography by Dan Sellers

A dog came in the kitchen
And stole a crust of bread.
Then cook up with a ladle
And beat him till he was dead.
—Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Talking to Tina Parker at Kitchen Dog Theater requires coffee. When I go to the MAC one morning in early December to talk to Parker and her co-artistic director, Christopher Carlos, I want to know why they are producing Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, and Parker goes off about the connection between this play and this theater in a great, exuberant, slightly paranoid rush, like one of her trademark mile-a-minute curtain speeches. (“Howdy, howdy, howdy!”) Luckily, I have a voice recorder. A month later, listening to what she says, I keep hearing tones and nuances I missed the first time, when my tame little latte ran out too early.

“I think that this play’s like dead-on, perfect, for the mission of Kitchen Dog, because, I don’t know—I just reread it last night so my mind’s like WHOOO! Plus I’m like on cold medicine, like I keep getting new medicine, because I’ve been twice—I’ve been sick for like a month and a half—and I go [high, tortured, half-strangled voice, very rapid], ‘I’m like Woyzeck, experimenting on me, giving me these new drugs.’ [voice returns to normal] And I’m like, ‘Is this even FDA-approved?’ I’m going to be some super-immune crazy! It’s like Woyzeck, he’s obviously losing his mind, people are poking and prodding him—and they don’t care. It’s all about commerce and how to get ahead, and I think that that’s, you know—like I almost got run over by an SUV today! It’s like, this play is right in that: More! More! Bigger! Who cares who gets run over?”

I have no idea until I’m listening again later just how much she’s channeling the play’s themes directly through her experience—this riffing brilliance of association. Everything relates. She is Woyzeck, and Woyzeck is this company. “This is about Kitchen Dog Theater,” she says.

Written in 1836 and 1837, based on a real case, and left unfinished when Büchner died, Woyzeck is the story of a soldier, Franz Woyzeck. He is a sad figure, bossed around and mocked by his superiors, used as an experimental subject by a doctor (who chastises him for wasting his urine instead of saving it for him), betrayed with another soldier by his wife Marie, and essentially dismissed by all of them as a human being. A generation earlier, Büchner’s philosophic countryman Hegel had emphasized the moral necessity of recognition—that is, seeing other people as “self-conscious subjects” rather than as things of use—and Franz Woyzeck could serve as Exhibit A for the moral failure of society. No one understands the man’s finer nature; no one notices that he’s obviously losing his mind.

“The whole reason behind our name comes from Waiting for Godot, the kitchen dog who symbolizes the victim/participant,” Parker says. In Beckett’s play, one of the characters sings a song about a dog that steals a crust of bread from the kitchen. The cook beats him to death with a ladle. That’s Woyzeck, the dog, the “victim/participant,” and explaining him obviously taps into a conversation that has defined the company’s 16-year history. Most of the founders come from working-class backgrounds like Parker’s—“I’ve lived in many a trailer when I was growing up, Dad went to Vietnam, and my grandfathers were a farmer and a Methodist minister”—and those origins informed the original mission, which helps explain their choice of this play.

For Carlos, a quiet, thoughtful man who escaped from Castro’s Cuba as a 7-year-old, the process of taking in the play seems just as intense. He’s seen Werner Herzog’s 1979 version with Klaus Kinski, and he’s thought a great deal about Büchner, who wrote two other plays—Danton’s Death and Leonce and Lena—before he contracted typhus and died in February 1837 at the age of 23. Carlos has a haunted look perfect for Franz—or Frank—Woyzeck, whom he’ll be playing in the production. He says that the play is about “class, religion, economics, the military, medicine—the experimentation. It’s all these things wrapped up in these 24, 26 scenes. I think the style of it was revolutionary in its time. The scenes are short. They almost read cinematically. The language is rich.” Carlos doesn’t need to say much else. He is the one everybody will watch, the one who carries everybody else’s baggage. He gets to be Woyzeck.

A month later, on a Saturday morning in early January, I meet the director, Dan Day, in the Starbucks on McKinney near the MAC. His heavy stubble might be deliberate, or it might be because he’s been in the hospital for a couple of days with his 2-year-old son, who developed an infection in his hand after a dog bite (an uncanny coincidence, somehow) and had to be hospitalized. He won’t have the first read-through of the play until the next week, and when he answers questions, he does so cautiously, thinking a long time before he speaks. After a few minutes, his visionary take on Woyzeck begins to emerge. He talks less about Woyzeck the social victim and more about the neglected place of the mystic or prophet or poet that Woyzeck represents. I have the feeling he’s also talking about himself. This is a very serious man in a culture—Starbucks with its vanities and its laptops serves as an instant symbol—blithely unaware of its coming destruction, ignoring the voices that might deepen it or correct it.

Since Büchner left the play in discrete scenes without any suggested order to them, directors have considerable latitude in their arrangement, and Day prefers to open with the forest scene when Franz and Andres—Frank and Andy in this production—are cutting firewood. “Woyzeck is overcome with a vision, and he sees the sky burning and the earth burning and feels that there’s something under the earth that’s coming,” Day says. “So in our production, his madness is related to these things that he sees coming at us as a world. There’s madness in the fact that we’re participating in the destruction of the planet, sort of gaily charging ahead and saying, ‘I guess it’s going to take care of itself.’ So that’s a theme I try to incorporate in the adaptation. It’s interesting how, in Shakespeare, events are reflected in nature itself. Our lives now are reflected in nature itself. Our daily actions are reflected in the destruction of the world we live on.”

Day understands apocalyptic dread, but that’s not enough for him. A little later in the conversation, it turns out that his view of the play has been modified by a novel that haunts me as well, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a strangely hopeful novel about a father trying to get his son south for the winter through a terrifying world after an unspecified disaster has destroyed almost everything. Day sets his version in a time like that, when the former world and its voices exist only in fragments, like the commentaries and poems he’s found in discarded books (such as the ones in the recycling bin behind Half Price Books) and that he’ll use in his version.

“I think having a child really changed me, and I think the pessimism and the despair in the text of Woyzeck began to not be enough for me,” Day says. “With a 2-year-old son, I don’t want to spend my energy working on something with no hope. So I began to think about how I could explore hope—an alternative to this really dark world.”

So which Woyzeck will we see? “It’s not ever at Kitchen Dog about the realization of one person’s vision,” Day says. The play, partly because Büchner himself left it unfinished, draws all their visions into it: paranoia, corrosive satire, mysticism, dread. Maybe even, after the sky burns, a future.

Woyzeck runs February 16 through March 17. 3120 McKinney Ave. 214-953-1055.