Misery's the river of the world in "Woyzeck." Faced with the flood of suffering in Georg Büchner's pitch-black tragedy, the only thing left to do is row.
The iconic playwright ("Danton's Death," "Leonce and Lena"), a scientist and political radical, famously left the tale unfinished when he died of typhus in 1837 at the age of 23. But that hasn't stopped the play, widely considered the first modern tragedy, from electrifying audiences with its grit and daring ever since. "Woyzeck" was Berkeley Rep's first show in 1968. Now, Shotgun Players sinks its teeth into this apocalyptic carnival in Mark Jackson's seductive 90-minute production, which runs through Jan. 13 at Berkeley's Ashby Stage.
Jackson ("Faust," "God's Plot") has always had a way with the avant-garde impulse. He brings electrifying intensity to this groundbreaking drama, a play seminal enough to shape everyone from Brecht to Beckett.
The absurdity of the human condition is the heart of the expressionistic piece, which is based on a true story. In Robert Wilson's ("The Black Rider") explosive adaptation, the tragedy is heightened by the rasp and wail of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's tantalizing score. Moody, sexy and operatic, this "Woyzeck" may be the most subversive holiday show ever. It's a ballad of murder and dread that doesn't let up until there's blood pooling on the stage.
Woyzeck (the moving Alex Crowther) is a poor man slogging through life in a tattered hoodie and dogtags. A soldier who returned from war forever scarred, he toils as a lowly barber on a military base. Bullied by his smug fat-cat captain (Anthony Nemirovsky), he picks up a few extra pennies as the subject of medical experiments for a ruthless doctor (an intense Kevin Clarke).
His dignity gone, his mind lost in a haze of conspiracy theories, our brooding antihero succumbs to the desperation of poverty. Nina Ball's set is dingy and claustrophobic, a prison of asphalt and grime where Woyzeck's descent into madness seems preordained.
He becomes blind to the needs of his wife, Marie (Madeline H.D. Brown), and their baby son. When the love-starved Marie cheats on him with a slick drum major (the fierce Joe Estlack), tragedy beckons like a siren.
The music here drives the action, giving the fragments of Büchner's elliptical tale a sense of unity. Jackson also gilds the piece with wit, which helps make the play's grim themes tartly comic as well as disturbing. The ensemble, many of whom are Shotgun stalwarts, subtly evoke the horror of this lurid netherworld where the only solace lies in the grave.
The always insightful Beth Wilmurt mesmerizes as the narrator of this sideshow. She delivers "Misery's the River of the World" with a potent mixture of damning and detachment.
From start to finish, Jackson nails the jarring tone of the piece, its unsettling theatricality punctuated by the lure of circus music. If the director sometimes tries too hard to ground the story in the now (the McDonald's bag is a little distracting), he captures the intoxication of foreboding,
The tangled longing of "Coney Island Baby" and the snarl of "Another Man's Vine" are unforgettable here. Crowther, who was so vulnerable in "Metamorphosis" at the Aurora, taps into the narcotic nature of rage. Estlack goes almost feral as the sleazy drum major. The onstage band, Bob Starving and the Whalers, instantly sucks us into this opera of the doomed.
We may never know how Büchner intended to fit all the shards of this haunting narrative together. But it's hard to imagine a "Woyzeck" more darkly hypnotic than this one.
Music and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, concept by Robert Wilson, based on the play by Georg Büchner
Through: Jan. 13
Where: Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
Running time: 1 hour,
30 minutes (no intermission)