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“˜Woyzeck’ to run at Freud Playhouse

By Andrew Lee

Dec. 1, 2002 9:00 p.m.

When UCLA Performing Arts announced the lineup for the 2002-2003
season, nothing stood as a more obvious testament to the
program’s reach toward the cutting edge than
“Woyzeck,” a fragmented play by director Robert Wilson
which starts its run at the Freud Playhouse tomorrow.

But in spite of consistent labeling of the production as
“modern,” throwing songwriter Tom Waits into the
equation gives it a distinctly anachronistic dimension.
Waits’ music is infamous for including ancient and
long-forgotten instruments and styles, and the collaboration
between him and wife Kathleen Brennan to write music for
“Woyzeck” follows the same path.

“I’m not sure I know what modern is,” Waits
said over the phone from his home in Sonoma County. “I guess
maybe “˜Woyzeck’ is (modern) in the sense that they
found all these bits and pieces of the play and stitched them
together like a collage. Maybe that did push it into the modern
world; it wasn’t written or ultimately produced in the same
way other pieces are.”

Wilson and Waits have collaborated together before, beginning
with a play Waits wrote in the early ’80s called
“Frank’s Wild Years.” The two met later at a
coffee shop and discussed working together on
“Woyzeck,” a piece written in 1837 and left unfinished
by playwright Georg Büchner.

They took the work and reimagined it, and the final product is a
disjointed piece that eschews linear narrative for a more abstract
meditation on themes Waits labels as “duplicity, jealousy,
rage and murder.”

“This was considered one of the first proletariat operas,
in that it dealt with the working class,” Waits said.
“So that was attractive to me.”

The story revolves around a soldier who undergoes medical
experimentation prior to going mad and murdering his girlfriend.
The music that accompanies “Woyzeck” ““ which was
released last year by Waits as the album “Blood Money”
““ is appropriately nightmarish, akin to a fever dream inside
a claustrophobic’s head.

A combination of broken carnival music, woozy New Orleans jazz
and even tender ballads, Waits accentuates the surreal atmosphere
with the use of calliope and stroh violin, among a sea of other
instruments. Waits’ gravelly voice is the representation of
an outsider, a drunken rambler who sings of despair and loss in a
voice that carries a tinge of rage. In a particularly memorable
line in the opening track, Waits barks “Misery is the river
of the world/ Everybody row!”

It’s a role Waits has played before, but never has his
music been wrapped inside such a suffocating production, giving the
sound a dusty surface and further evoking the dementia that lies
mired inside. The music may be modern, but it doesn’t sound
modern.

“I guess I like old records because they sound like
they’re struggling to reach you,” Waits said.
“Have you ever heard a record and if it’s got scratches
on it, if it’s too far away, or if you’re in between
stations on the radio, does it ever really affect the performance?
It doesn’t. It makes you listen harder, so you have to work.
You’re reaching in, like if you get a phone call from far
away.”

Waits embraces the interference of the world. He likes it when
three radios are on at the same time. He likes to record with the
door open. Yet in spite of his oddball proclivities regarding
music, Waits has gradually gained mainstream recognition and
respect ““ his album “Mule Variations” won a
Grammy in 1999.

But he’s too left-field to be universally appreciated, and
that outsider role is something he shares with director Wilson,
whose landmark work “Einstein on the Beach” remains
among composer Philip Glass’ most well-known musical
contributions. A production of that work will make its way to UCLA
in late 2004.

“I know that Wilson, regardless of where he goes, is kind
of a loose cannon,” Waits said. “Within the theater
world people either think he’s a visionary, or they think
he’s a gorilla. And he’s wired with explosives. But
he’s important because he takes chances and I think
it’s healthy for theater and opera that he’s around,
hanging out of a truck with a shotgun, taking shots at stop
signs.”

It’s clear “Woyzeck” isn’t conventional
L.A. theater; it barely fits into the conservative American theater
scene. But the combined vision of the two artists has resulted in a
product that’s as vaguely familiar as much as it’s
entirely alien.

“Wilson, he’s always playing with time,” Waits
said. “I heard a recording recently of crickets slowed way
down. It sounds like a choir, it sounds like angel music. Something
sparkling, celestial with full harmony and bass parts ““ you
wouldn’t believe it. It’s like a sweeping chorus of
heaven, and it’s just slowed down, they didn’t
manipulate the tape at all.

“So I think when Wilson slows people down, it gives you a
chance to watch them moving through space,” he said.
“And there’s something to be said for slowing down the
world.”

“Woyzeck” appears at the Freud Playhouse from Dec. 3
to 15. Tickets are $70, $20 for students.

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