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A rectangular coffin-like black box, back lit, rises, floating
mysteriously from the horizontal to the vertical. A woman's leg juts out, dangling
flirtatiously with the audience. A group of bizarrely dressed and made up characters enter
from the box like so many clowns from a circus Volkswagen.
Welcome to the phantasmagorical world of The Black Rider, a powerful theater piece in which the words (mostly in verse), the music, and the stage design and direction share equally important roles, creating a magical combination which plays out like a piece of aural/visual poetry. Like poetry, it doesn't reveal all its meanings at once. Rich in ambiguities, it is a work of imagination that requires the viewer to meet it at least half way.
Originally produced in Hamburg in a German version in 1991, The Black Rider was an instant success, playing in cities across Europe as well as in Brooklyn and Berkeley. This English language version premiered in London in May, 2004 and will continue from San Francisco to the Sydney Festival next year.
The libretto, by the late William Burroughs, is drawn from a German folk tale, a story in the Faust tradition. A young man sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for special powers to help him win the girl he loves. In this case, the young man is a clerk, Wilhelm (Matt McGrath), who loves (and is loved by) Käthchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara). But Käthchen's father, a forester, wants a hunter for a son-in-law, not a clerk: "Put down the pen, pick up a gun!" Hunters, after all, bring home game for the table. A shooting contest is planned between Wilhelm and his rival for Käthchen's hand.
Wilhelm then makes his bargain with the Devil, here called Pegleg (Marianne Faithfull), who gives him magic bullets, bullets that never miss their mark. Or do they? The Devil retains control over the final bullet and, having won his bride, Wilhelm's final shot, aimed at a bird, kills Käthchen. ("The bullet may have its own will. You never know who it will kill.") He goes mad.
The story stretches into the absurd and surely Burroughs, a gun enthusiast, seems to be exorcising some demons of his own. In 1951, he was challenged by his wife Joan (both of them in their cups) to a test of his marksmanship. He had her put a glass on her head as a target, a la William Tell. When he fired, he killed her. The Black Rider is intricately connected to that grotesque incident and also makes clear reference to the drugs that were so much a part of the Burroughs gestalt. But, while Burroughs' history informs the text, the Faust legend retains its broader implications, a core theme of universal interest.
Both the music, by Tom Waits, and the direction and design by long-time avant garde director Robert Wilson are eclectic, drawing on a wide variety of sources to create a mesmerizing theatrical experience. Waits' sometimes dissonant tunes evoke folk songs, African tribal music, Kurt Weill, German cabaret, klezmer, the hurdy-gurdy sounds of the circus, even including an electric saw.
Wilson uses distortions both of perspective and of size, shadow play, vivid lighting, smoke, and a range of colors that evoke German Expressionism, all to create images sometimes funny, sometimes haunting, always creating stage magic that is at once traditional and new, synthesizing circus and vaudeville, commedia dell'arte, mime, even a touch of Japanese Noh theater. It's all highly stylized, a journey into the surreal--a comical nightmare, a Walpurgisnacht of the absurd.
The performance makes enormous demands on the skills of the actors, all of whom excel. Faithfull delivers her songs in her smoky, whiskey tones, with a knowing glint in her eye and a posture of rather casual relaxation in the midst of an otherwise highly charged milieu.
The show stops for Matt McGrath's second act number which starts out as an extended bit of mime and segues into an intense song ("Lucky Day") using the gruff, throaty sound that Waits himself is known for. It's a breakthrough moment. While the rest of the show has fascinated and delighted with its intriguing imagery, it is a largely cerebral experience. McGrath's song connects with a compelling emotional intensity not present earlier on, at once capping the evening and delivering an essential quality of theatrical experience, more of which would have raised The Black Rider to a more profoundly moving level.