a review of Tom Waits' musical of Woyzeck at the Shotgun Players, playing until January 27th

By Alexander Quionones-Bangs

Photo: Jessica Palopoli/Great Sadness
The Shotgun Players’ production of Tom Waits’ musical version of Georg Büchner’s proto-modernist masterpiece Woyzeck is a big play on a little stage, and I wish they had done more to accentuate that. The songs are in your face, the emotions are raw and it doesn't go on for too long. Director Mark Jackson, along with Musical Director David Möschler, has also managed to put on a show that doesn’t just feel like a bunch of actors singing Tom Waits’ songs, but a fully realized drama that happens to feature a bunch of actors singing Tom Waits’ songs. It’s a nice trick and suggests new possibilities for musical drama and Woyzeck is certainly not your typical musical.

There are two problems with the production, and unfortunately one of them is the script. The musical’s book by Ann-Christin Rommen and Wolfgang Wiens requires just a little too much prior knowledge of Woyzeck. The story starts so suddenly that it takes a while to get one’s bearings and there’s really no reason for the confusion. It’s just confusing. Similarly, there is a worrying feeling that you might not have known why Woyzeck killed his wife (a solid Madeline H.D. Brown) if you hadn’t read the play beforehand. The reasons seem both too obvious and a little too murky. Of course, that could be the point, but somehow here it doesn’t quite feel fully justified, as if the issues were more willed than felt. Once you get it, you don’t quite believe it and that’s a problem.

Photo: Jessica Paloli/A man's got to work
The show’s much more successful when it strays from overarching themes and concentrates on the details of Woyzeck’s life—his work as an army barber, his increasingly distressed conversations with his beer buddy Andres (a jaunty Kenny Toll) and the way he relates or doesn’t relate to his wife, Marie. There’s a moment, it’s a slow and subtle transition, where we hear or overhear Woyzeck’s rambling feelings and then actually listen to what he’s raving about. It makes one wonder how much of what we’re witnessing is actually just a reflection of a delusion. Whatever the answer, and there’s probably no definitive answer, the effect is well done and eerie. It’s at moments like these that we need no explanation of the story of Woyzeck and we feel for the plight of this sad army nobody.

Jackson’s production has many such memorable moments: Woyzeck’s Captain (Anthony Nemirovsky) comforting himself with a lollipop; Beth Wilmurt’s lovely voice tuned to a perfectly bitter pitch while singing about the general depravity and inhumanity of the world; and the moment when you realize that the Drum Major (a solidly sketchy Joe Estlack) isn’t wearing a shirt under his uniform, his flabby muscled body awfully and proudly on display. And like many of these moments the songs take off right when the lyrics repeat and we get a chance to see how each of the characters react to the meaning of the music. Unlike most musicals I never got the sense that any of these songs belonged to any one character. It had the sense of a communal song and a communal tragedy. No matter who starts to sing, someone will invariably start to chime in or pester the singer, and eventually, often, the whole cast is involved. It works because, sooner or later, the focus of anything and anyone comes back and lands on poor Woyzeck (a haunting and haunted performance by Alexander Crowther).
Photo: Jessica Palopoli/Oh no, not good
As I mentioned earlier, there are two problems that are hard to ignore. One is the script and the other is Nina Ball’s set design. It is supposed to be foreboding, an overwhelming depiction of the hell of lower-class life and the purgatory in which a common man slowly loses his sanity and falls to hell. The hundred-seat Ashby Stage is well suited to this sort of cozy set, and indeed everything is laid out well and focuses on the star. The issue is that instead of feeling claustrophobic, the set feels cramped. Instead of being disturbing, it feels plain. A little more could have been done in order to play up the discomfort of the surroundings and chip the edges. The set feels worn but not dirty, and the difference is significant. Dirty is difficult to escape, while worn lacks the edge that this play needs to flourish.

Woyzeck demands a production that balances the common with the deranged and overall Jackson’s production does a solid job of maintaining that order. In the world these characters live in no mercy is given or forthcoming. Everyone is either dead or dying, and that’s just life as normal in the world of Woyzeck, a musical that suggests that whether we want to or not, we have all sung along to its joyless tune and contributed to this awful tragedy.

Tickets available at until January 27th

Photo: Jessica Palopoli/Inhuman
©CCA Arts Review and Alexander Quionones-Bangs

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