Following last summer’s production of Henry V and this season’s Trojan Women, Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck (1837) is the latest classic to lend an allegorical hand to Off-Broadway’s anti-war ground-swell. The LAByrinth Theater Company’s Guinea Pig Solo borrows the bare narrative bones of Büchner’s psychological horror story and freely improvises the rest, moving the action to post-9-11 New York and reimagining its hero as a mentally unstable Iraq veteran incapable of putting the war behind him and adapting to the even crueler realities of civilian life.
During the day, José Solo (John Ortiz) sells hot dogs and cuts hair. At night, he serves as a medical specimen in a VA hospital, where he submits to Clockwork Orange-like torture from a smoothly diabolical doctor. Manic and sleep-deprived, José rants about living on “Burger King wages” and a life spent “waiting in the ‘your skin isn’t white enough’ line.” On his off-hours, he stalks his estranged wife (Judy Reyes), whose involvement with another man sends José into a fit of homicidal jealousy.
Director Ian Belton cuts abruptly between scenes of violent motion and lethargic stasis in a jolting but ultimately numbing attempt to replicate José’s bipolar hysteria. Showily up-to-the-minute, Guinea Pig Solo features swipes at Colin Powell and Rummy, and its climax unfolds in the murky shadows of a citywide blackout. Playwright Brett C. Leonard writes firecracker dialogue, but his characterization and politics (war dehumanizes everyone) remain broad and obvious. Fiercely talented and rabidly focused, Ortiz transcends his character’s insistent victimization through sheer physical bravura. Racing around the stage, catapulting himself between sets, and on several occasions running furiously in place, his soldier is less a guinea pig than a wounded shark for whom rest spells merciful death.