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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Dazzling Production of
Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's Woyzeck

Shotgun Players are presenting a triumphal production of Georg Büchner's Woyzeck adapted by Robert Wilson with sumptuous music by Tom Waits and mocking lyrics by Kathleen Brennan. It is superbly directed by Mark Jackson who, along with a cast of superb singer/actors, makes this one of the most electrifying productions of the season.

Georg Büchner wrote the play 175 years ago, yet it is a play for our times. He took inspiration from the trial of J.C. Woyzeck, a German soldier who murdered his lover in 1821. The defense argued that the traumatic experience he suffered during the war contributed to his current mental state. Woyzeck was found guilty, but the sentencing was delayed for three years while experts examined his insanity claim. Ultimately, the soldier was beheaded in 1894. The play debuted in Munich in 1913 and since then there have been dozens of stage and film adaptations including an opera by Alban Berg that I saw years ago at the San Francisco Opera.

Robert Wilson's adaptation stops before the famous trial but shows the causes of Woyzeck's murder of his wife Marie. The 90-minute drama shows that Woyzeck clearly was a victim of society and of his own agitated, inarticulate longings. He is a soldier returning from the war and now he is a lowly barber on a military base. A self-satisfied censorious regimental captain lectures him on morality, to which the soldier replies, "If I had a hat and a watch and a big coat and all the proper words I'd be virtuous alright." A doctor pays him to eat a wacky diet of peas and treats him like a specimen. His wife Marie has taken to selling her body due to poverty and neglect. A friend Andres touts the inescapability of instinct to Woyzeck and finally he is cuckolded by a drum major. When pressed, he envisions conspiracies and turmoil around him.

The Woyzeck score seems influenced by early Kurt Weill melodies, and the lyrics remind me of the Brechtian dictum, "First comes bread, then the morals." The songs make you tap your feet. The opening song, "Misery is the River of the World," simplifies things with a carnival oom-pah. It contends "if there's one thing you can say about mankind,/ There's nothing kind about man." Bob Starving and the Whalers, who are perched on the second level of the stage, absorb the precisely disjointed style of Waits' arrangements.

Alex Crowther as Woyzeck speaks and sings in a natural tone, especially when he is singing "Coney Island Baby." He does a perfect performance as a man dejected by life. Madeline H.D. Brown gives a solid performance as Marie.

Kevin Clarke gives a comically intense performance as the eccentric tweedledum-tweedledee doctor with a fantastic skew-whiff head of hair. The insightful Beth Wilmurt mesmerizes as the narrator of this sideshow. Joe Estlack stops the show with his faultless rasping and circuitous break dance tango moves on "Another Man's Vine." Anthony Nemirovsky successfully portrays a pompous hypercritical regimental captain, while Kenny Toll is first rate as Woyzeck's friend Andres. Andy Alabran, who plays a gentle village idiot, is never introduced and stays on the sidelines, perched on the second tier runway on the side of the theatre, but out of nowhere he starts to cradle Woyzeck and Marie's infant.

Mark Jackson nails the vibrating tone of the piece. He avoids the oblique symbolist staging for a more grounded, formal take with Nina Ball's theatrical set.

Woyzeck plays through January 27th at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. Berkeley. For tickets call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. Coming up next is Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia: Shipwreck.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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