The Black Rider

The Black Rider: the casting of the magic bullets - a musical fable
a kate west review
directed by Robert Wilson
music & lyrics by Tom Waits; text by William S. Burroughs
at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 North Grand Ave, Los Angeles 90012
running April - June 2006; contact (213) 628-2772 / CenterTheatreGroup.Org

Based on Carl Maria von Weber's opera "Der Freischütz" ("The Free-Shooter"), which is in turn based on a German fable, "The Black Rider" originally premiered in Hamburg, Germany in 1991 in German and in London 2004 in English to great success. The Ahmanson Theatre now presents the latest reincarnation of this classic devilish tale about selling a soul for a heavy price - right here in Los Angeles.

The combination of the above dark elements with the modern talents of musician Tom Waits and noted writer William S. Burroughs should get you an amazingly innovate and original production. It's different all right. For starters, you really (really) need to be in the mood for extreme expressionism - the kind of heavy German presentational style that ran rampant in the early 1920's (picture exaggerated gestures and elongated facial expressions).

Wilhelm (Matt McGrath) is the Clerk in love with Kätchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara), daughter of Bertram the Forester (Dean Robinson) and Anne (Joan Mankin). All the characters are initially introduced by the devil himself, Pegleg (Vance Avery) while they emerge in procession from what looks like a floating coffin or a magician's box, judging from the big top references in the song lyrics. This circus-like presentational formation prepares the audience for the stylistic acting to come, which may quickly become rather tedious for some audience members. The gist of the story is that Wilhelm is not good enough for Kätchen until the devil gives him a rifle with magic bullets enabling him to hit every thing he aims at. Wanting too badly to win over his future-father-in-law and to live happily ever after, he starts to get greedy and gets more bullets. Unfortunately, the devil is always owed his due and the final bullet ricochets wildly and instead of hitting a white dove, hits Wilhelm's all-in-white bride.

The symbolism and artistry leading up to this event is rather interesting - white brides cooing and cawing like white doves with various ominous death images, but there are also some annoyingly unexplained moments as well. For instance, in the first scene, we see an enormous table and two chairs which become progressively smaller until they are miniature toys in the final scene. Wilhelm playing scenes with his pants down around his ankles, while perhaps foreshadowing his eventual madness, is still an irritating image. Luckily, Tom Waits' music is fascinating, especially the theme song "The Black Rider" and "That's the Way," which is essentially akin to beat poetry ("That's the way the stomach rumbles, that's the way the bee rumbles, that's the way the needle pricks, that's the way the glue sticks …"). His is a perfect pairing with author William S. Burroughs to evoke modern angst. An important historical note here is that Burroughs literally did accidentally kill his real-life wife when playing William Tell (the one who shot apples off of people's heads) to her trusting figure of a target and thus is well familiar with the descent into madness and violent confusion.

The actors are all strong, especially Matt McGrath as the doomed clerk (his growling "Lucky Day" is a highlight) and Vance Avery as the devil himself, Pegleg. John Vickery helps create a brooding atmosphere, as Wilhelm's Old Uncle and the Duke, stuck frozen in an other-worldly-type painting overlooking the living, and Nigel Richards' intensity at different points in the play is reminiscent of extreme modern art as his face contorts into silent screams and sharp angles.

Director Robert Wilson (also responsible for the yawning heights of the set) makes a clear statement of absurdism by having his actors stay true to the expressionist style. Too much of that may be hard to take, as evidenced by several people leaving the theater before even waiting for intermission. But the people who stuck it out gave the show a fierce round of applause. So it's a love-it or hate-it response with this piece, depending on the viewer, just like modern art. If you stay open to it, you will be rewarded with exotic imagery in a dangerous carnival world. As in life, it's all about your perspective and it's all subjective.

More Tom Waits:
Mule Variations

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