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On the Aisle



Brooklyn Academy of Music: Woyzeck

By Philip Anson / November 15, 2002
On the Aisle

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) presents plenty of straight theatre, music, and dance throughout the year, but some of their most memorable offerings are hybrid productions such as the Tom Waits-Robert Wilson play-with-music Woyzeck seen on Nov. 15, 2002, during BAM’s 20th Next Wave Festival.

This colourful and arresting production of Georg Büchner's 1837 play - translated and set to music by Tom Waits, and designed and directed by American Robert Wilson - was premiered by the remarkable Betty Nansen Theatre troupe in Copenhagen in November 2000. BAM’s decision to import it for New York audiences was a very wise decision.

WilsonWaits’s flakey, country/punk music and Wilson’s rigidly stylized visual aesthetic worked surprisingly well together. In the past, Wilson (photo left) has not hesitated to bend even romantic opera such as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal to his spartan will, forcing tubby opera singers to stand stiffly for hours in prisons of fluorescent light. Here, Waits seemed to have exerted a calming influence on Wilson, who allowed his actors to move more freely, almost naturalistically at times. His trademark robotic postures, arthritic gestures, Javanese puppet-like silhouettes, and spotlit hands were tempered by the sort of droll antics one associates with the silent films of Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

The Danish actors inhabited their parts with amazing intensity and precision, looking and moving for all the world like manic cyborgs. Their spoken and sung English was clear, with just a trace of accent, which suited the exoticism of the play.

WaitsThe score by Waits (photo left) was deeply indebted in style and structure to Kurt Weill, fusing singspiel, punk rock, folksong, and country ballad. A small live band played in the pit, but a soundtrack would have sufficed.

The ominous yet surreal banality of Büchner’s text was cleverly adapted by Wolfgang Wiens and Ann-Christin Rommen, while Waits crafted wryly disquieting lyrics with a contemporary twist. Whereas Alban Berg’s 1925 opera Wozzeck, based on the same play, is relentlessly harrowing, Waits lightened the gloom with bouts of sardonic verse and jokes.

This “Weimar Republic-meets-Warner Brothers” production was indebted to the nightmarish cubism of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while the stark clown make-up and asymmetrical costumes (by Jacques Reynaud) recalled the zany excesses of 1970s New Wave and glam rock (think Bowie, Parachute, Nina Hagen, etc.)

The play ran over 2 hours, but the music relieved the intellectual austerity and psychological tension. Truth be told, the end dragged somewhat. It would be dramatically cleaner to end it after Marie’s death.

Critical response was positive. The New York Times noted “moments of eerie perfection” and The Village Voice called it “rich in epiphanies.”



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001 and Philip Anson