German Social Commentary Meets Tom Waits Gloom and Grit in Shotgun Players' Woyzeck

The misery of existence set to harsh chords is the special forte of Tom Waits. A troubadour of sad sack gloom and grit, Waits has found inspiration in the cynical class condemnations of the socialist theater of old.

Waits recorded Bertolt Brecht's "What Keeps Man Alive?" (with the lyric, "Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts"), and has has written his own slit-your-wrists ditties, like "Misery is the River of the World" (sample lyric: "If there's one thing you can say about mankind, there's nothing kind about man").

A hundred years before Brecht's Three-Penny Opera, Georg Büchner wrote Woyzeck, his 19th-century condemnation of capitalist wickedness. The German playwright Georg Büchner paved the way for bleak, Brechtian satire. Georg Büchner died before completing his play and many theater artists have tackled the unfinished work.

I can't believe anyone has done a finer job than Robert Wilson, who, in 2002, had the genius inspiration to enlist Tom Waits to set the play to music. In its West Coast premiere, Shotgun Players' director Mark Jackson has also done a bang up job injecting a hipster grunge aesthetic to this desolate, hope-dashing farce, which basks in Waits' singular style of junkyard jazz.

In collaboration with his wife Kathleen Brennan, Waits wrote the music and lyrics with song titles like "Everything Goes to Hell" and "God's Away on Business."


The cast sings: "All the good in the world, you can put inside a thimble, and still have room for you and me."

Alex Crowther and Anthony Nemirovsky

Alex Crowther play Woyzeck, a young man struggling to keep his head above water. He takes odd jobs to provide for his woman and child. When he shaves a portly, military Captain, (Anthony Nemirovsky), we witness the Captain's gluttony as Woyzeck is told to replace the shaving cream with whipped cream, so the man can lick his face.

Anthony Nemirovsky, Alex Crowther and Kevin Clarke

Woyzeck is also paid to participate in a medical experiment for which he must eat only peas. As The Doctor, Kevin Clarke is delightfully bizarro. He has the menacing manner of a mad scientist, with a shock of Albert Einstein hair. Clarke's edgy unpredictability makes the doctor both menacing and hysterical.

As he seizes Woyzeck for his maniacal purposes, The Doctor sings, "God's away, God's away, God's away on business." It's a Waits song that later appeared in the film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

The songs that make up most of the play were later recorded on Tom Waits' album Blood Money, but this album doesn't get near the power of the songs as they are integrated into Mark Jackson's adaptation. On Waits' recordings, the songs are sung only with Waits' pulverized baritone and his clamorous orchestrations; they are often more harshly avant-garde than affecting. Under David Möschler's musical direction, and the musical accompaniment of Bob Sarving and the Whalers, the music in this adaptation captures the characters' desperation, deceit and even their numbness.

The band plays everything from a tuba to a toy piano, and vibraphone to filing cabinet. The music is fraught with dischord and chaos, with assaulting percussion, ironic waltzes, lively big band jazz, deceptively tender ballads and sarcastic upbeat numbers.

Beth Wilmurt

Beth Wilmurt deftly conveys the dead-inside human condition as a cynical hooker in a red wig. Looming above on the stage's scaffolding, she sings in a numb staccato.

She and Madeleine H. D. Brown, who plays Marie, Woyzeck's lover, perform "A Good Man is Hard to Find." This is a song that works well in Waits' Blood Money interpretation, but is far more meaningful here when sung by fallen women.

Joe Estlack and Madeline H.D. Brown

Marie's head his turned by the dashing Drum Major, played with impeccable hilarity by Joe Estlack. In his shiny military duds, he peacocks around her, performing an absurd mating ritual that incorporates a moon walk and other Michael Jackson flourishes.

On Nina Ball's set, you can nearly see the grease on the walls, the piss in the pots. Christine Crook's costume designs playfully demonstrate the haves and the have-nots. In Jackson's smart and dynamic production, looking into the abyss was never so enjoyable.

Woyzeck runs through January 27, 2012 at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit or call 510-841-6500.

All Photos: Jessica Palopoli.