One painful message keeps echoing throughout Guinea Pig Solo, Brett C. Leonard's new modern adaptation of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck that the LAByrinth Theater Company is producing at the Public Theater's Shiva Theater: "Without hope - only death remains."
That's the driving philosophy behind every action of José Solo (John Ortiz), a veteran of the war in Iraq who's returned to find his home in America very different from the one he left. He can no longer relate to his wife Vivian (Judy Reyes) or son Junior (Alexander Flores); in fact, divorce proceedings are pending, and a restraining order prevents José from seeing either of them. José's every waking moment is devoted to working and bettering himself so that he may win back their love and trust.
In the series of short, sharp scenes that constitute the play (there are 38 in the first act alone), we see José attempt to hold down two jobs and participate in medical experiments to earn still more money and help arrange his thoughts and feelings so that he can return to a normal life. Yet it seems as if he is held back at every turn by the police, his well-meaning friend Gary (Stephen Adly Guirgis), or, most frequently, his own past and sometimes self-defeating overarching ambitions.
Under the harsh, lightning-paced direction provided by Ian Belton, Guinea Pig Solo plays as an electrifying journey into the depths of the human consciousness. Never do we have an opportunity to catch our breath, and never are we allowed the luxury to step back and examine the happenings from an objective distance. The set (by Andromache Chalfant) is equally imposing, a forbidding combination of walls, fences, and fractured set pieces that trap us with José in a world simultaneously industrial and militaristic. Paul Whitaker's anxious, unforgiving lighting only enhances these feelings.
But while Belton and the design team (which also includes Kaye Voyce doing the costumes and Fitz Patton handling the sound) make Guinea Pig Solo an often stunning theatre experience, the writing itself is less compelling. Sometimes seeming to sacrifice quality for quantity (a bit strange as the play runs just over two hours), there's a lack of specificity to José's problems that often feels unsatisfying. Too often, the character seems like a symbol for the horrors war can inflict on those fighting it rather than an actual person; his problems are alluded to, but never dealt with directly. Characters like the moralizing police officer (Richard Petrocelli) and the encouraging doctor treating José (Robert Glaudini) suggest potentially interesting avenues for exploration, but end up not adding up to much.
As the other characters in the play are more clearly drawn (portrayed in more realistic terms, they have to be), it often seems as if there's something of a dramatic void at the show's core. This is almost filled by Ortiz, who gives a performance of considerable power, depth, and even endurance (he must deliver lines while running on a treadmill, and must scale the front wall of the set and slide down a fireman's pole at different points). Through it all, he never loses his firm grip on José, though he can't always overcome the character's sometimes crippling loquaciousness; Belton's work is so energetic, you can't help but wish there would be a bit more showing than telling.
The other actors all provide fine support: Guirgis is an impressive beacon of comic clarity in José's otherwise dysfunctional world; Reyes and Flores are appealing and convincing as the family members José left behind; and Petrocelli and Glaudini come across well as the two primary authority figures in José's life. While other performers are more often hidden in the background, such as Kim Director as an all-knowing zoo tour guide, and Portia as Vivian's friend and a staunch nurse, but they're no less effective.
But it's likely to be Ortiz's performance and Belton's overwhelming production that stick with you after you leave the theater. Leonard deserves credit for the many intriguing dramatic components he has integrated into Guinea Pig Solo, but the play itself proves less engaging than it might have been if the pieces had all come together.