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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 471-475
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Woyzeck. By Georg Büchner. Betty Nansen Teatret Copenhagen, Berliner Ensemble, Berlin. 8 September 2001.
POEtry. By Lou Reed and Robert Wilson after Edgar Allen Poe. Thalia Theater Hamburg, Brooklyn Academy of Music. 28 November 2001.
Georg Büchner's gaunt manifesto of social realism as a song-and-dance show? Edgar Allen Poe's morbid tales sliced and diced to deafening rock tunes? No stretch for Robert Wilson, the peripatetic postmodernist impresario. The latter-day Wilson has begun to explore the modernist literary canon more assiduously, as if to show his detractors that he is legitimate, and not necessarily as predictable as some would have it. Thus he staged a powerful (and largely text-true) Danton's Death (1992/99), a well-received Dream Play (2000), and now, Woyzeck and Poe. (The two productions reviewed here opened in Europe in November and February of 2000, respectively.) Along for the ride through the lower depths of nineteenth-century consciousness are two rock icons whose own cult status neatly complements Wilson's own: Tom Waits and Lou Reed. Wilson had previously called on Waits more than a decade ago to create Black Rider (1990), an improbable pop-cultural success fashioned from Webern's Der Freischütz, followed by the less than triumphant Lewis Carroll fantasy Alice (1992). Reed's music already drove Wilson's 1997 opera Time Rocker, inspired by H. G. Wells.
So how does Georg Büchner's sparse fable of inhumanity and madness fare in the hands of the Technicolor Texan? In front of the curtain, on which the play's title is projected in jagged script as if incised by lightning, a row of small black cutout figures stands: a house with a smoking chimney, a tree, a dog, a Ferris wheel. They look like a desultory shopwindow display or a row of slightly ominous-looking children's toys, and this lineup is nothing if not programmatic. Wilson, who considers the piece "a very strange love story" first of all, [End Page 471] has made Woyzeck his plaything. This is not necessarily to the play's detriment. The virtue of Wilson's theatrical approach is his unrestrained appetite for pictorial invention, his often masterful ability to conjure crisp images into being that, at their best, make the stage a conduit of dream states, simultaneously lucid and deeply mysterious. This can be esoteric as well as exhilarating, and so the choice of Waits, the gravelly-voiced balladeer of urban despair, who with his wife Kathleen Brennan is responsible for the rollicking, jazzy music and the grimly edgy lyrics, is an inspired act of collaborative asymmetry.
The first surprise of this Woyzeck, to those familiar with Wilson's often languid sense of pacing, is that the performance takes off at breakneck speed from the first note of Waits's propulsive score and never looks back. (Since the production began life at the Betty Nansen Teatret, a quirky Copenhagen theatre that bills itself as "Denmark's alternative national stage," all dialogue was delivered in Danish, with the songs sung in English, a bit of distanciation which the audience at the Berliner Ensemble predictably took in stride.) The structure of Büchner's 1837 fragment is famously malleable, and Wilson/Waits set the demented sideshow-tone of the piece immediately by thrusting us headlong into the fairground scene, where, prompted by a sardonic, yellow-clad, stilt-walking carnival barker, the cast belts the rousing blues tune, "Misery's the River of the World," which delivers the production's decidedly caustic view of human nature: "If there's one thing you can say /About Mankind / There's nothing kind about man." If the feverish tableau is extremely episodic, this is no accident. Wilson and Waits have dipped liberally into the artifacts of Weimar culture, coming up just on the homage side of derivative. The look of the production puts one in mind of the 1919 film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with its nightmarish sets and morbid tale of obsession and [End Page 472] murder...