KPBS AIRDATE: December 13, 2002
Miniature lighted metal sculptures twinkle and glide across the stage. Each will make a return appearance later, larger-than-life. The curtain rises to reveal an eye-popping splash of modern art and a giant, chartreuse-clad barker who draws us in, singing the haunting anthem of the evening, “Misery’s the river of the world… everybody row.” The carnival has begun. Robert Wilson is on the West coast… but only briefly and only at UCLA. For the past 25 years, the wildly experimental, internationally acclaimed director has done more work abroad than in his native country. Even this production, on a world-wide tour, debuted in Copenhagen and features an all-Danish cast and orchestra. The play is Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck,” a story of love, jealousy, infidelity and insanity, questionable medical ethics and questions about the meaning of life and the dark recesses of the soul. It’s a fragmentary nightmare, left incomplete when Büchner died of typhus at age 23, in 1837. Elliptical in structure but dense with symbolism, the play describes the descent into madness of a hapless soldier who, in an effort to earn extra money to support his mistress and young son, participates in medical experiments which lead to deranged thinking and apocalyptic visions. Added to the societal abuse, his beloved betrays him, and Woyzeck takes his bloody revenge.
This astonishing production is a mind-blowing marriage of color, concept and sound, designed, directed and extraordinarily lit by Wilson, with music by folk-rock poet-troubadour Tom Waits and lyrics by his partner, Kathleen Brennan. Wilson uses light like a punch-drunk painter. Every visual image, every subtle shift of the highly saturated, Crayola colors, is jaw-dropping gorgeous. There’s genius in the angular, geometric set-pieces and stiff, stand-up costumes; the highly stylized movement; the garish makeup, the German cabaret atmosphere. A tree springs up, one triangle growing atop another; huge arrows slyly extend, narrowing the space; a total eclipse comes down on the ill-fated couple as a pinpoint, blood-red light moves ominously from his hand to her neck. There’s a child, a knowing village idiot, even a dancing mechanical monkey. You can’t take it all in at once. And throbbing beneath it is the suggestive soundscape, sweet and soulful at times, very Kurt Weill at others, always descending into the depths of despair and darkness. ‘God’s away on business,’ one tells us.’ “Mankind?” a character snarls. “There’s nothing kind about man.” Every magical actor’s malleable voice is a cacophony of instruments, including the sandpaper vocal scrape of Waits himself. It’s all very Expressionistic, futuristic, atavistic and yet, unnervingly contemporary. Nothing short of brilliant, breathtaking and unforgettable.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS news.
>©2002 Patté Productions Inc.