Ensemble Theatre stages Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s daring musical ‘Woyzeck’

The "Woyzeck" cast includes Matt Gottlieb (Doctor), Stephen Van Dorn (Woyzeck) and Matthew Henerson (Captain). David Bazemore
The “Woyzeck” cast includes Matt Gottlieb (Doctor), Stephen Van Dorn (Woyzeck) and Matthew Henerson (Captain).
David Bazemore

When writer Georg Büchner died at 23 in 1837, he left behind the fragments of a play that had no ending and no official structure. Yet out of all his works, the “working-class tragedy” of “Woyzeck,” about a soldier gone murderously mad with jealousy, is the most read, most performed, and most interpreted. There have been operas, movies, a ballet and many stage adaptations. It is extremely open to interpretation.

Ensemble Theatre’s Jonathan Fox has taken on one of the most popular recent adaptations of the play — a musical by Tom Waits and his wife/collaborator Kathleen Brennan — and brought it to the New Vic, opening tonight. And even that is an interpretation: Mr. Fox has ditched the other third of that 2002 production: Robert Wilson’s direction and production design.

 Gina Manziello plays Marie and Steven Good plays the Drum Major in "Woyzeck," the musical version of the Georg Büchner play.

Gina Manziello plays Marie and Steven Good plays the Drum Major in “Woyzeck,” the musical version of the Georg Büchner play.
“The material stands on its own without that style of production,” Mr. Fox says. “But this is the play — minus a few scenes, so it’s tighter — and all the songs… And we couldn’t replicate the Wilson production if we wanted to.”

The play itself is already difficult to pull off, says Mr. Fox. There are moments of naturalism and realism and then moments of expressionism.

Mr. Fox and his production designer Francois Pierre Couture began to work on this production while the former was finishing work on “The Consul” for Opera Santa Barbara.

“The music is so carnival sounding that I wanted to put it in a carnival setting,” Mr. Fox recalls saying. The barker and the carny are characters that Tom Waits has indulged in his videos and his instrumentation; that skewed perspective has allowed the singer to look at the darker aspects of the world with black humor.

The story takes place in a military town, where the title character lives in a world of poverty and is buffeted by social forces: lectured on morality by an army captain, treated like an experiment by a doctor, broken down by a friend. And then he’s being cheated on by his wife, the outcome of which will lead to murder.

That combo of carnival and army setting led Mr. Fox and his designer to build a revolving carousel in the middle of the stage that will double as an army tent. (The revolving turntable is so particular, Mr. Fox called a rehearsal day just so the actors could get used to it.)

Playing the Waits-Brennan score is a five-piece band that has created its own arrangements, and it’s a score that takes up 90 percent of the musical. “I love Tom Waits’ sound and approach to his sound,” says Mr. Fox. “But I love cover versions of his songs too. They bring out a lot of the beauty in his songs. And the characters bring their emotion to the delivery of their songs.”

Woyzeck is played by Stephen Van Dorn, new to Ensemble.

“A lot of people turned down the project,” says Mr. Fox. “It has a reputation for being very grim. So the people who were interested were those who click into the material.”

Mr. Van Dorn has played serial killers and other dark roles. “He tries things both vocally and as an actor. He brings Woyzeck’s emotional breakdown to life.”

Matt Gottlieb, last seen in “Red” playing Mark Rothko, plays the doctor in a very over-the-top, mad-scientist style, bringing in his clown training. Tiffany Story, who was in Ensemble’s “The Liar,” plays the hardened neighbor of Woyzeck’s wife.

For all the darkness, there is plenty of dark humor. And some of the music is uplifting too, says Mr. Fox. But why does he think this unfinished play has garnered so much interest?

“A story of a soldier who becomes a little unhinged and then slowly manipulated and degraded by the oppressive authority figures — this is something that plays out (in society) over and over again,” Mr. Fox says. “There was a puppet version done in South Africa about Apartheid. And today we have soldiers coming home who wind up beating or killing their wives. Post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t have that name during B¸chner’s time, but that’s what Woyzeck has.”

Büchner based the character on a true crime from his time, but elevates it to the realm of art with its various pressures on its lead character’s sanity. It’s up to audiences to decide what eventually causes Woyzeck’s breakdown.

“It makes it a very complex story,” says Mr. Fox, “and that’s what’s made it so influential. It’s ahead of its time.”

When: through May 3: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-
Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (and Saturday, April 25); 7 p.m. Sundays, except April 26; 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 21
Where: The New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St.
Cost: $35
Information: (805) 965-5400, www.etcsb.org

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