It’s been nine years since the Bay Area encountered a Robert Wilson–Tom Waits collaboration. That was American Conservatory Theater’s 2004 North American premiere of The Black Rider (a three-way artistic partnership among Wilson, composer Waits and Beat author William S. Burroughs). If that stunning piece excited particular interest in Wilson—the lesser-known quantity, since we don’t see much of the formidable American director-playwright’s work in the U.S.—last fall’s magisterial revival of Einstein on the Beach at University of California–Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall whet the public’s appetite all over again.
This time no one has to wait a decade for another helping: Just a mile and a half south of Zellerbach, in the nicely appointed repurposed church it calls home, Shotgun Players is offering the Wilson-Waits–Kathleen Brennan adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, running through Jan. 13.
At the helm of this intimate Northern California premiere is San Francisco–based playwright, director and Shotgun company member Mark Jackson. This is good news for those who have come to appreciate Jackson’s fine instincts, which combine a healthy knowledge of the trans-Atlantic avant-garde with his own considerable capacity for discovery and invention.
He’s had to apply those instincts here in some unanticipated ways: The hands-off, noncommittal contract with the show’s rights-holders meant Jackson and his team found themselves puzzling over several conflicting versions of the script—in several languages—and two versions of the score, including some esoteric notations inscrutable to the outsider. A member of the band finally turned up a bootleg of the original Danish production, which functioned as a Rosetta Stone of sorts. It sounds like a recipe for insecurity, but Jackson insists it was a boon.
“To have to approach it in that way is actually a great kind of preparation,” he says. “It helped me understand the play. It helped me understand the characters, too, and their own mental fragmentations.”
While eschewing any idea of staging the action in ways derivative of director-designer Wilson, Jackson found an even greater appreciation for the subtlety and compassion of Wilson the playwright. “He’s under-appreciated for his content because the form is so strong,” Jackson proffers. “As we’ve been working on this piece, his imprint on it remains, in the particular fragmentation of what, in the case of Büchner’s unfinished last play, is already a fragment. But there’s nothing in the script that makes one need to work in a ‘Wilson’ way. Tom Waits’s music is the stronger aesthetic of the two, but you can feel Wilson’s sensibility in the humanistic, nonjudgmental way in which Woyzeck and Maria are handled. It’s really the only version of the script that I’ve encountered where I actually get the play.”