30 January 2013

Shotgun's Woyzeck

Last Thursday I finally made it to the Shotgun Players production of Woyzeck, with music and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, directed by Mark Jackson, based on a concept by Robert Wilson. Originally I was supposed to go the first week of January, but I got sick, which was not how I wanted to start the new year. Luckily for me the run had been extended and the box office was able to  switch my reservation to another day. The Shotgun Box Office folks are always extremely helpful.

I had really been looking forward to this show. First of all: Woyzeck! Also, I had really enjoyed the previous Tom Waits/Robert Wilson work I had seen, The Black Rider, which ACT presented a few years ago (like Woyzeck, that was also based on a work better known as a German opera; in that case, Weber's Der Freischutz). I thought it was a cool bold choice for a relatively small theater. Its appearance on the schedule was one of the reasons I became a subscriber.

So sadly I have to say I just didn't connect with the show. I can't say I disliked it; in fact there were many things to like. But, as with their production of Sondheim's Assassins, the show was brutally, inexplicably amplified. Why? Why, in a theater as small as the Ashby Stage, would you need to do that? The advantages of a space like that are intimacy and immediacy and a sense of involvement: why would you sacrifice all that for a pointless wall of aggressive sound that pushes you back from the performance rather than draws you in? At times the amplification blurred the words. All the performers had those ugly little wires taped to their faces with what I guess is the power source bulging out of their back waistbands, which doesn't exactly help the illusion that these people I'm watching are anything but contemporary performers. I guess that's fine if you're going for that Brechtian distancing effect, but it really pushed me back from any emotional involvement with the characters.

It doesn't help that the ending is changed: in this version the child of Marie and Woyzeck is still a babe in arms, and so there is no heart-breaking ending when the little boy goes out to play with the other children and it turns out what they're doing is looking at his mother's dead body. She still dies - in fact, I realized that this is the third Mark Jackson show I've seen in the past few years in which the female lead has her throat slit, though in the other two (Miss Julie and Faust, Part One) she does it herself. The night I saw the play the Marie, Madeline H.D. Brown, was sick. Her understudy was fine, but I've really liked Brown in the other things I've seen her in recently, so I was disappointed not to see her. (I'm afraid I don't know the understudy's name; the substitution must have been a last-minute thing, since Jackson announced they would need to delay the start of the show by a few minutes so she could get ready, and there was no paper slip in the program or any announcement that gave her name.)

Tom Waits is a great songwriter, and a very distinctive one, conjuring up a very specific world and worldview in his songs, but it did cross my mind that maybe that world is just a shade too wistful and picturesque, just a shade too scruffy low-life colorful, for the harsh cruelty and caustic absurdity of Buchner's play. I thought Kevin Clarke as the Doctor and Anthony Nemirovsky as  the Captain were the best at capturing the cruelty and the comedy. The rest of the cast was also strong (Andy Alabran as Karl, an Idiot; Alex Crowther as Woyzeck; Joe Estlack as the Drum Major; Josh Pollock as the Carnival Announcer;  Kenny Toll as Andres; Beth Wilmurt as Margaret). But I just couldn't get past the awful fake sound.

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