A Cesspool to Celebrate

13. December, 2012 Theater 3 comments

There have been umpteen zillion variations and adaptations of Woyzeck, assembled from unsorted fragments that author Georg Büchner left when he died in 1837 at the age of 24. The Shotgun Players production under the direction of local auteur Mark Jackson uses a high-profile musical version from the year 2000, adapted by Ann-Christin Rommen and Wolfgang Wiens with a concept by original director Robert Wilson and songs by Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan that Waits later recorded on his 2002 album Blood Money.

Alex Crowther and Anthony Nemirovsky in Woyzeck. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

As you might imagine, the songs are superb—bewitching junkyard cabaret (with more than a hint of Brecht/Weill), superbly played by music director David Möschler and a five-player band on untraditional instruments like toy piano and a filing cabinet as a percussion instrument. Percussionist Josh Pollock doubles as the sinister carny barker who kicks off the play.

Visually rich in tawdriness, Jackson’s staging is compelling from the outset, as the characters slowly begin to populate the landscape, glowering into the distance or right at us. Nina Ball’s two-story set is terrific, with dingy concrete-looking walls, puddly cracks in the floor, and a tiny wedge-shaped kitchen in the rear that gets rolled out for home scenes. The uniformed band is half-hidden behind a beaded curtain that glistens like tinsel. Christmassy!

Alex Crowther, Beth Wilmurt, Josh Pollock, Madeline H.D. Brown and Joe Estlack in Woyzeck. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

A poor young soldier in a sleepy town, Woyzeck is freaking out. Not so much about being a poor young soldier, although he’s certainly aware that he has trouble getting by, but about how the world is dead and the Freemasons are up to something and…well, about everything, really. In a fretful performance by Alex Crowther, Woyzeck is seemingly inane from the start, and it’s only going to get worse when he begins to suspect that his baby mama’s sleeping with another man.

There’s no chemistry between Crowther and Madeline H.D. Brown’s Marie, so at first you might think he’s her brother or a lodger or something, but fortunately she says something about the baby being his early on, which clears that up. Woyzeck’s too busy ranting and despairing to cuddle.

Madeline H.D. Brown in Woyzeck. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Mind you, everybody in this world is bonkers. Everybody’s also white, despite the world of the play not being discernibly rooted in any particular place and time. The army captain (an alternately jovially overbearing and desperately haunted Anthony Nemirovksy) veers between chiding Woyzeck for having no morals and rattling on about his own existential angst and the dreadful passage of time. Kevin Clarke is an entertainingly daffy mad scientist as the doctor, quizzing Woyzeck about his diet and raving about how he could—dare I say it?—rule the world with his medical experiments, barking the magnificently bouncy “God’s Away on Business” at our hero through a megaphone.

Anthony Nemirovsky, Alex Crowther and Kevin Clarke in Woyzeck. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Joe Estlack leers menacingly as the drum major in a fancy uniform (costumes by Christine Crook) who comes sniffing around Marie, doing comically out-of-place break-dance moves to impress her. Late in the play Marie hands the baby off to Andy Alabran as some guy in short pants.  There’s no indication of who this guy is or how she knows him (the program helpfully clarifies that he’s “Karl, an Idiot”), although he sings the kid lullabies so he can’t be all bad. Kenny Toll pops up now and again in cheesy 1970s gear as Andres, Woyzeck’s chipper bon vivant of a pal, trying to perk his mopey friend up with rowdy drinking songs.

The most well-adjusted is Beth Wilmurt’s blasé Margaret, the prostitute upstairs, who comments contemptuously on what a shithole the world is. Her fierce, deadpan rendition of the anthem “Misery’s the River of the World” is especially haunting, as is her cynical duet with Marie, “A Good Man (Is Hard to Find).” When the full ensemble joins in on the former number, it’s chilling.

The songs only occasionally serve any kind of narrative function, such as Woyzeck and Marie’s soberingly tender duet of half-forgotten love, “Coney Island Baby,” or the Drum Major’s roaring, predatory “Another Man’s Vine” (“I see a red rose, a red rose blooming on another man’s vine”). For the most parts they’re laments of discontent sung apropos of nothing in particular, the way they might be in Brecht. Still, these ditties are definitely the main attraction.

The fragments that make up the play are as confounding as they are intriguing so that a great deal of the time it’s not at all clear what’s going on, except for the central romantic melodrama, which couldn’t be more bare-bones and—disregarding the surrounding weirdness for a moment—unremarkable. The ending could be called tragic if there were any possibility of emotional investment in the characters, but everything in the text and the staging conspires to create distance. When someone gets killed, as is inevitable, and the killer and the killed linger in a frozen tableau, all one can think about is how skillfully Clyde Sheets’s lighting transforms one of the omnipresent puddles into a pool of blood. The world is shit, we’re reminded repeatedly, and there’s no sense getting worked up about it. But holy cow, is it easy to get caught up in Waits and Brennan’s songs, delivered like a punch in the face (a good punch in the face) by the cast and band. On an opening night that happened to coincide with the songwriter’s 63rd birthday, Woyzeck gave ample reason to celebrate—for all the good it’ll do in the cesspool we call life, anyway. 

Through January 27
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #115 of 2012, attended December 7.


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  1. Sundari

    12 / 17 / 2012 1:34 pm

    Boy was the music great(!), and that and the supporting cast (by which I really mean Margaret, the army captain, and the doctor, the latter two of which were completely mystifying as characters, but nevertheless really entertaining) really made the show for me. I was pretty disappointed with Brown’s singing, which was often flat and slightly out of tune, and also with the complete lack of chemistry between any of the three in the love triangle (there was far more chemistry in the aside scene of what seemed like intentional sexual banality between Margaret and the army captain than there was between, say, Marie and the drum major). But I was so busy enjoying the music overall that I didn’t mind as much as I would have without it.


  2. Sundari

    12 / 17 / 2012 1:39 pm

    Oh, and I don’t want to forget to mention Kenny Toll as Andres, who won me over pretty thoroughly by the end of his first big number, even though I was a little skeptical at first.


  3. jmr1944

    1 / 26 / 2013 7:27 pm

    A very smart review in that I agree with it. Loved the theatrical experience but was not so much touched by it – as you say W. is nutty from the first and who’s to blame? – as impressed and inspirited by the notion of confronting the void and thrusting out your chest and belting out a show stopper. You are correct, sir. If you aren’t invested in the characters, it’s not a tragedy. It really is a kind of black comedy. Saw it tonight and the actress who played Marie rose from her death slump for curtain call with tears in her eyes. Well, maybe she stubbed her toe.





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