(Robert Hurwitt’s article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, 12/9.)

Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's sensuous melodies and sardonic lyrics envelop the fractured shards of Georg Büchner's unfinished script to create riveting theater in the "Woyzeck" that opened Friday at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. Director Mark Jackson blends their talents with those of his company to deliver one of the most exciting productions of the year.

This is a "Woyzeck" that's as emotionally compelling as it is intellectually stimulating and mordantly comic, which is a major achievement. Büchner's prescient drama, which the 24-year-old German radical was still writing when he died in 1837, has had a huge influence on modern drama in the many scripts (and Alban Berg's opera) later cobbled from his jumbled manuscripts. But few stagings of the tale of the common soldier who murdered his lover (based on a true story) attain the immediacy of this one.

Partly that's because of the restrained, almost offhand emotional intensity in the acting and singing of Alex Crowther's Woyzeck, Madeline H.D. Brown as his lover Marie and the rest of Jackson's almost perfect cast. But the show's impact also derives from how well the director builds on the genius of his predecessors.

Visionary director Robert Wilson had the idea of uniting the gritty, sardonic visions of Büchner and Waits, Wilson's collaborator on "Black Rider." Wilson pared down the script with adapter-translators Ann-Christin Rommen and Wolfgang Wiens to a crisp, concentrated libretto with a tight focus on the paranoid Woyzeck's borderline sanity cracking under the strain of military life, poverty, medical experiments and Marie's infidelity. Waits and his wife, Brennan, draw on Büchner's text to fill out the tale's heart as well as its worldview.

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