Review: ‘The Black Rider: The Casting Of The Magic Bullets’

With a creative team led by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs and Marianne Faithfull, the hipness quotient of "The Black Rider" extends through the roof. This grotesquely comic but unclassifiable "musical fable" based on a German folk tale offers much to amuse and delight. What it lacks is anything approaching a heart.

With a creative team led by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs and Marianne Faithfull, the hipness quotient of “The Black Rider” extends through the roof — and into the grave, for that matter. Not quite opera and certainly not a standard tuner, yet nearer those territories than Wilson usually travels, this grotesquely comic but unclassifiable “musical fable” based on a German folk tale offers much to amuse and delight. What it lacks is anything approaching a heart. Engaging the emotions, or even its own slight narrative, is a task this too-cool-for-school spectacle wouldn’t dream of.

The show was first performed in German in 1990. Current edition restores Burroughs’ text as well as Waits’ lyrics to their original English. The former’s curmudgeonly, sometimes profane wit and the latter’s not-dissimilar brand of barstool free-association are clearly spoken and sung by an impressive (with one exception) cast.

The familiar storyline has been adapted by many, including 19th century opera composer Carl Maria von Weber and Brit author Thomas De Quincy. (As told in the 1810 “Book of Ghosts,” it also reputedly helped inspire Mary Shelley to pen “Frankenstein.”)

Redolent of Faust and golden-apples fables, tale here focuses on clerk Wilhelm (Matt McGrath), who’s seeking a mutually desired love match with Kathchen (Mary Margaret O’Hara, whose addled ingenue recalls the near-mad one in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”). But her forester father, Bertram (Dean Robinson), thinks only a proven huntsman should win hisdaughter.

No champion shot, Wilhelm frets until mysterious “black rider” Pegleg (Faithfull) appears, offering magic, target-seeking bullets. Only drawback is that the Devil “rider” gets to choose the final target.

While there’s little doubt where that bullet — or this cautionary morality play — is headed, “The Black Rider” takes its time getting there, especially given the utter disinterest in narrative and character development. Instead, Wilson’s focus is on various, disconnected coups de theatre that dazzle primarily in the moment.

What emerges is an evening of arresting set-pieces so aggressively deconstructive one might be forgiven for forgetting just what the con-struct is supposed to be — if indeed there is one. The eye and ear are mostly so engaged that the near-absolute lack of empathy — Wilson uses his performers like programmable robo-puppets — doesn’t have time to register.

All distortive cutouts, his extraordinary set design is attuned to German Expressionism of the “Dr. Caligari” era (ditto Frida Parmeggiani’s paper-stiff unisex costumes). The movement vocabulary is closer to cartooned Kabuki, placing cast in an avant-camp netherland somewhere between “Eraserhead” and “Rocky Horror.”

Wilson’s lighting adds an often stunning full-color richness. Puppetry, shadowplay, flying rigs and illusionist tricks also are part of the full-to-bursting presentational menu.

Occasionally, however, inspiration comes to a screeching halt — most notably in a flabbergastingly dull entr’acte by two minor performers during a major set change. There are other instances in which the work’s erratic pulse drops, with the second act notably arrhythmic.

Waits’ music traverses his usual polyglot terrain, encompassing warped sea chantey, carnival theme, cry-in-beer ballad, blues stomp, etc. It’s so characteristic that at times his gravel voice seems to ghost the performers’. The “Magic Bullet” pit orchestra, under Bent Clausen’s direction, plays a gamut of gewgaws that won’t surprise those familiar with Waits’ recorded oeuvre, among them toy piano, musical saw, ukulele, didgeridoo, martenot and flugelhorn.

Asked for the most part to assume frozen freak-show expressions while putting their vocal abilities through the wringer, cast members are heroic. McGrath’s Conrad Veidt-like hero would be even more haplessly winsome if Wilhelm were permitted a smidge of the unironic senti-ment his can’t-go-on, must-go-on curtain song “The Last Rose of Summer” seems to presuppose.

Support players have as many as five roles each, though distinguishing them isn’t always easy when performers sport the same extreme wigs and makeup throughout. It’s a fascinating group nonetheless, ranging from Czech mezzo-soprano Sona Cervena, punk progenitor Richard Strange and visual artist-composer O’Hara to practiced legit thesps. Vocal contribs are rangy and striking, even if production favors the kind of non sequitur pyrotechnics (sudden bursts into animal noises, foreign accents, etc.) that serve only to signal “Experimentalism at Work.”

Despite their diverse backgrounds, cast does mesh as a sort of ensemble apart from Faithfull. The singer can’t, or won’t, work toward the contortively stylized body language and facial expressions everyone else does, so her Pegleg comes off a rather halfhearted villainess. That cracked, smoky voice is apt, but Faithfull otherwise coasts on a would-be sinister grin and celebrity-guest-star aura.

The Black Rider: The Casting Of The Magic Bullets

Geary Theater, San Francisco; 1,035 seats; $80 top


A BITE:04 and Cultural Industry production in association with American Conservatory Theater and the Sydney Festival of a musical fable in two acts, music and lyrics by Tom Waits, text by William S. Burroughs. Directed by Robert Wilson.


Sets, lighting, Wilson; costumes, Frida Parmeggiani; original musical arrangements, Greg Cohen, Waits; musical director, score adaptation and orchestration, Bent Clausen; sound designer, Nicholaj Aarup; dramaturg, Wolfgang Wiens; associate director, Ann-Christin Rommen; casting, Louise Jeffreys, Griselda Yorke, John Cannon, Meryl Lind Shaw, Greg Hubbard, Lucy Clark; flying effects, Flying by Foy. ACT artistic director, Carey Perloff. Opened Sept. 1, 2004; reviewed Sept. 25. Runs through Oct. 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.


With: Marianne Faithfull, Matt McGrath, Sona Cervena, Janet Henfrey, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Robert Parsons, Nigel Richards, Dean Robinson, Gabriella Santinelli, Richard Strange, Monika Tahal, Jake Thornton; Jack Willis.

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