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A CurtainUp Review

Woyzeck at BAM

If there's one thing you can say about mankind, there's nothing kind about man.
-- from Woyzeck's Misery is the River of the World (Waits/Brennan)

The BAM New Wave Festival is happily giving New Yorker's an opportunity to see some of London's most intriguing offerings. Most recently we had a chance to see Debora Warner in Medea and now the stunning modern musical adaptation of Georg Bühner's 164-year-old Woyzeck by Robert Wilson and composer-lyricists Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. The still powerful tragedy, as conceived by Wilson looks like an exhibit in a modern art museum, moves like a ballet and has a score that sounds at once like a musical and a contemporary opera.

The BAM production features the same excellent cast as the production reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge when it moved from its original production at Copenhagen's Betty Nansen Thetre to London's Barbican. Now that I've seen Woyzeck in Brooklyn, I can only add that this is avant-garde theater at its most breathtaking yet not the least difficult to comprehend. The collaboration of Wilson and Waits-Brennan works to simplify Wilson's concept while the imaginative staging enhances the music. The way each character is identified by specific movements and recurring musical leitmotifs adds to the overall brilliance and clarity of the work.

My only complaint is that two hours and ten minutes puts an undue strain on the audience's comfort level -- unnecessarily so since there's a natural break for at least a brief pause to stand up and stretch at the one hour mark.

Woyzeck will be at BAM a bit longer than usual, but not long enough to put off getting a ticket. You're unlikely to see anything like this genre-crossing work anywhere, any time soon. --Elyse Sommer

by George Büchner
Music and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
Direction, design and visual concept by Robert Wilson
Adaptation of text by Wolfgang Wiens & Ann-Christin Rommein C-direction: Ann- Christin Rommen Cast: 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).
Costumes: Jacques Reynaud
Lights: A.J. Weissbard and Robert Wilson
Presented as part of BAM's Next Wave Festival
Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street (Ashland/Rockwell Pl.), Brooklyn 718.636.4100
For transportation options, including special Bam Bus Service, check the BAM website:
Oct 29—Nov 2, Nov 5—9, 12—16 at 7:30pm Nov 3 & 10 at 3pm -- Tickets $80,55, 30

--- Lizzie Loveridge's review of Woyzeck at the Babican Center
He is like Da Vinci. He's a director, a dancer, a fantastic painter. I have learnt a lot from him. He sat down with a piece of paper and designed the entire stage, the scenography, the lights, everything. If he sees a tree he likes, he will draw it, have someone make an exact copy and put it on stage the very same evening. He played the entire final scene in Shakespeare's King Lear for me one night when we were drinking and talking. Finally he took an old newspaper, crumpled it, and threw it up in the air so that it slowly fell to the floor. Then he hunched himself up like a lump on the exact same spot where the newspaper had landed. He does things like that all the time.
-- Tom Waits on Robert Wilson
This year as a part of the Barbican International Theatre season, innovative American director Robert Wilson again brings a Scandinavian theatre group to London to perform one of his unique and highly stylised productions. But this year, the performance is in English and the music is by the ineffable musical phenomenon Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan. These special factors combined make for a highlight of London's theatrical year. Wilson's work is pure art form, the design the thing, from costume to stylish sets to lighting effects which seem to be three decades ahead of the opposition. This is one review which would be better illustrated by a series of images from the production of Woyzeck, words seem inadequate.

The source for Woyzeck is the play by Georg Büchner which was made into an opera in the 1920s by Alban Berg. The play, which tells the story of a soldier, Woyzeck (Jens Jørn Spottag), who undertakes medical experiments in order to earn money to support his mistress and child is one which sounds in advance of its time. Marie (Kaya Brüel), the mistress, betrays Woyzeck with the Drum Major (Tom Jensen) of a military parade. Woyzeck starts to lose his mind, culminating with the discovery of his murdered mistress in his arms with the bloody knife in his hand. To quote the synopsis, "Woyzeck is the story of a man's gradual degradation; of a life cruelly caught between nature and nurture; of losing both the woman you love and the meaning of life." In Büchner's words, "Everyone's an abyss. You get dizzy when you look down into it."

The opening scene to a wildly coloured backdrop like a child's frantic crayoning, has the cast in primary colour costumes which remind us of characters in a circus or indeed a carnival. Only Woyzeck is plainly dressed in the kind of white outfit Russian gymnasts wear, bare chested with trousers that rise above the waist. The Carnival Announcer (Troels II Munk), tall on hidden stilts under his yellow exaggerated suit, sings, booming out "Misery's the River of the World". The characters are there, Marie in her red dress with a sculptured bodice and multi-asymetric hemline, the Siamese twinned doctors with hair sleeked back like modern racing cycling helmets, the strutting Drum Major in a red tailed suit. This is going to be a visual feast.

Tom Waits' music, a blend of the Blues, rock, folk, throbs with a raw, incessant beat, some of his lyrics incongruous as in the love ballad "Coney Island Baby" but always riveting, always stimulating, never bland. Most, but not all, of the songs are on Tom Waits' album Blood Money. Songs like "Starving in the Belly of a Whale" and "It's Over" remain in your head until you can get to the music shop to buy the CD!

The performances are highly stylised, exaggerated, mechanical and pose-like in the Wilson mode. The actors often move as if they are automata, or characters in a music box, victims of a divine joke, powerless on a cosmic turntable. Woyzeck (Jens Jørn Spottag) runs on the spot to show the energy he is using up but also his futile lack of progress. I liked Marie (Kaya Brüel) as the scarlet woman, the unfaithful mistress, "my favourite words are good-bye and my favourite colour is red" dazzled by the showy Drum Major who favours the rose which "grows on another man's vine"..

It is Robert Wilson's lighting which took my breath away. How did he illuminate one hand ultramarine blue like a glowing glove while the arm remained pasty flesh coloured? Does he use tiny spots or torches? Why does his lighting effects make everyone else's look as if they are in the Dark Ages? It is these images which will recur in the memory of this truly spectacular production.

Curtain Up's Reviews of another Robert Wilson's Productions:
-- Reviewed at the Barbican on 27th September, 2002.

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