Clip: Tom Waits hits the stage (Woyzeck reviewed)
THEATER REVIEW | 'WOYZECK'
Woyzeck as a Normal Guy Who Gets Jealous
By JON PARELES
[I] t took crusty romantics like Tom Waits and his wife and longtime
songwriting partner, Kathleen Brennan, to bring out the sympathetic side of
the director and designer Robert Wilson.
Their adaptation of Georg Büchner's strange and fractured 19th-century play
"Woyzeck," at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music through
Nov. 16, is in some ways a typical collection of Mr. Wilson's geometric
stage tableaus and comic-grotesque performances. But at its center is a
Woyzeck who looks like a relatively normal guy and keeps coming back to one
of Mr. Waits's most deeply affectionate songs. The philosophical debates
and demented ravings that figure in more realistic productions of "Woyzeck"
and in Berg's opera "Wozzeck" soon give way, in this adaptation, to a tale
of jealous love.
Mr. Wilson's collaborations with rock songwriters have sometimes been more
like collisions, as the straightforwardness and concision of rock clash
with Mr. Wilson's dream logic and slow-motion timing. But "Woyzeck" is his
third collaboration with Mr. Waits and Ms. Brennan, and they have reached a
détente that's somewhere near a reimagined surrealist cabaret. Mr. Waits
has always had a Kurt Weill streak in his music, subverting pretty melodies
with arrangements that creak and clank. Mr. Wilson enjoys the combination
of the everyday and the inexplicable, and Mr. Waits's ballads still let him
take his time.
In the underlying play, poverty turns Woyzeck into the plaything of faith,
science and nature. A self-satisfied captain lectures him on morality; a
doctor (played, in this production, by an actor and actress joined like
Siamese twins, bouncing lines between them) pays him to eat a wacky diet
and treats him as a specimen; a friend named Andres, made up as a warped
double of Woyzeck, touts the inevitability of instinct. Woyzeck himself,
when pressed, envisions conspiracies and subterranean turmoil. But the
opening song, "Misery Is the River of the World," simplifies things: with a
lurching carnival oom-pah, it contends, "If there's one thing you can say
about mankind/ There's nothing kind about man."
Woyzeck's worst problem is that his wife, Marie, is cheating on him with a
self-satisfied drum major, eventually driving Woyzeck to madness and
murder. Mr. Wilson keeps the narrative clear, and the Danish actors from
the Betty Nansen Theater of Copenhagen speak English impeccably. For the
most part, they also deliver the Waits-Brennan songs with the right
combination of tenderness and rasp, and the six-member band has fully
absorbed the meticulously disjointed style of Mr. Waits's arrangements. (He
recorded his own versions of songs from "Woyzeck" on his album "Blood
Money," released by Anti/Epitaph.)
As Woyzeck, Jens Jorn Spottag is a stoic, Buster Keaton character. Though
he's endlessly running in place, Wilson-style, he speaks and sings in
natural tones, lingering over the song "Coney Island Baby": "She's a rose,
she's a pearl, she's the spin on my world." But Woyzeck is a man beset by
cartoon figures. Everyone else growls and cackles except Kaya Bruel as
Marie, a whispery, vampy femme fatale who steals every scene.
The sets use German Expressionist angles and a Kandinsky palette, and Mr.
Wilson color-codes the characters: white for Woyzeck, his son and Andres;
blue-black for the captain and doctor(s); red for the cheating lovers. At
times, Mr. Wilson's imagery can be breathtakingly obvious; when Woyzeck
decides on murder, a blood-red spotlight illuminates his hand. But as
always in a Wilson production, there are moments of eerie perfection, among
them a dance hall scene that has the performers slanting and twitching to a
Yet there's more to this "Woyzeck" than eye candy. Between the warped yet
homey songs and Mr. Spottag's troubled deadpan, Woyzeck becomes more than a
cipher. In a perverse world, he's still oddly human.
By Georg Büchner; directed by Robert Wilson; music and lyrics by Tom Waits
and Kathleen Brennan; adaptation and translation by Wolfgang Wiens and
Ann-Christin Rommen; sets by Mr. Wilson; costumes by Jacques Reynaud;
lighting by A. J. Weissbard and Mr. Wilson. Production by Betty Nansen
Theater of Copenhagen, presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At the
Harvey Lichtenstein Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene.
WITH: Jens Jorn Spottag (Woyzeck), Kaya Bruel (Marie), Morten Eisner and
Marianne Mortensen (Doctors), Ole Thestrup (Captain), Ann-Mari Max Hansen
(Margret), Morten Lutzhoft (Andres), Benjamin Boe Rasmussen (Karl), Tom
Jensen (Drum Major), Troels Il Munk (Carnival Announcer) and Joseph
Driffield, Jeppe Dahl Rordam or Morten Thorup Koudal (Christian).