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Theater 33.2 (2003) 93-96
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"Doctor, have you ever seen anything of double nature?" asks the title character in Georg Büchner's Woyzeck. In most productions this line isn't taken literally. It's handled as just one among dozens of philosophical abstractions that continually drop from Woyzeck's mouth like half-chewed seeds.
Not so in the musical version of Woyzeck that Robert Wilson created with Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan—a production of the Betty Nansen Theater in Copenhagen, originally from 2000, that ran at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November 2002. Here the doctor is played by two actors in identical purplish black suits who hop around the stage in lockstep as a pair of rather obnoxious and abrasive Siamese twins. Asked in an interview for his reasoning on this unusual choice, Wilson said: "You want to know the truth? I liked both of the actors very much and they were very different, so I thought, why not have them be Siamese twins?"
Deliberative text interpretation has never been the prime attraction of Wilson's "theater of images." Famously mistrustful of words and what he sees as their overweening influence on theater art, he has frequently demoted them to verbal wallpaper. Nevertheless, he himself has exhibited something of a "double nature" with respect to literature over the years, directing canonical masterpieces almost as often as his preferred nonsense texts and assemblages of literary fragments. When he chooses his collaborators astutely, the masterpieces can be among his most powerful productions—When We Dead Awaken, Parsifal, and The Lady from the Sea, for instance.
With Woyzeck—modern drama's most venerable fragment, the long-lost 1837 work about a tormented quintessential nobody who murders his wife after she betrays him—it's hard to think of a more ideal collaborator than Tom Waits. Büchner's play is blunt and lyrical by turns, spinning out its infernal carnival of a tale in short, Shakespearean scenes almost all of which are punctuated with music: period folk songs, ditties, taproom lieder, children's counting rhymes and more, which lighten the gloomy atmosphere. Waits reinvented and augmented this interaction of music and words without straying from his persona as pop music's favorite carny barker. What better complement to Büchner than Waits's ironic sentimentality, his jagged Weillesque rhythms, sweetly gloomy lyrics, and gift for making sleazy circumstances rise above cliché? (Waits had only a passing knowledge of Alban Berg's 1925 opera Wozzeck before this project, and no great admiration for it—"It was pretty morose and turgid.")
Call it a convenient marriage of opposites—in theory at least. Waits and Brennan got their fingers dirty and Wilson stayed managerially clean. The songwriters immersed themselves in Woyzeck's sordid world, with its [End Page 93] chillingly realistic torments mixed with bursts of bizarre imagery, morbidly weird anecdotes, and ruminations on madness and superstition. The director stuck to his unflappable cool, his geometric designs, his antiseptically generalized modernism, insisting to all the interviewers who managed to pin him down that the play was nothing more than a simple love story. Fire and ice, substance and style, the maternal and the paternal.
The gains are many and significant. At two hours and ten minutes, Woyzeck is shorter, punchier, and sexier than many other Wilson productions. It's also lighter and more capricious than any other Woyzeck or Wozzeck I've seen. The lightness resides mainly in the characters' movements—Woyzeck, played by the Gumby-jointed Jens Jørn Spottag, runs in place like a computer-animated marathon man, for instance, and his identically dressed little boy dances guilelessly and dashes mischievously about. In his Village Voice review, Marc Robinson eloquently described this movement as a product of "immature energy that mocks despair." The show has a deliberate pace and a forward propulsion rare in Wilson's work, and also a morbid humor that is easy, fluid, and organic—an effect not of interpolated "knee plays" or other extraneous vignettes but rather of shrewd integration of Waits and Brennan's droll and harshly seductive...