Robert Wilson’s visually gorgeous, aggressively weird and occasionally wondrous dreamscape of a show, “The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets,” is a work for adventurous theatergoers willing to set aside expectations. The free-flowing, oft-unstructured poeticism and startling images of late Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs prove a proper stimulant for Wilson, as do the eclectic experimentations — part blues, part music hall — of composer Tom Waits, who contributed the songs for this “musical fable,” based on a German folk tale.
Despite the prominence and significant contributions of his collaborators, make no mistake about it: Wilson is the auteur here. Forget the accessibility or rational coherence of narrative or character; his emphasis remains on breathtakingly beautiful, entrancing spectacle — strange and abstract landscapes frequently populated with still or slow-moving figures, with music, text and visuals often standing in purposeful contrast to each other rather than in harmony.
This is the kind of show that’s rich, undoubtedly memorable and ultimately fulfilling, but perhaps less pleasurable in the moment than in retrospect, after a good night’s sleep to absorb Wilson’s visions in their proper environment — the unconscious.
Originally produced, in German, at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, “The Black Rider” toured in English to Sydney and San Francisco in 1994. The triumvirate of Wilson, Waits and Burroughs certainly seems to draw a varied lot of the curious — hipsters of two or three different generations, together with a well-dressed opera audience. What’s more, the 2½ hour piece sports a more manageable length than usual for this director. “The Black Rider” thus stands out as a far more commercial endeavor for Wilson. Yet no matter how many times one has seen Wilson’s work, it remains shocking for its refusal to entertain in the traditional sense.
There is a simple, underlying story here, although Wilson starts deconstructing it pretty much from the start and employs it primarily for contemplation and not to create any suspense or other means of gripping the audience via the storytelling. Young clerk Wilhelm (Matt McGrath) must learn to hunt in order to be allowed to marry his chosen lover, the daughter of a demanding forester (Dean Robinson). A klutz with a gun, he makes a deal with a devil figure named Pegleg (Vance Avery) for some magic bullets that can’t miss their target. But, as we know from the start and are reminded frequently, such a deal is a “fool’s bargain,” destined to go wrong.
Burroughs, Waits and Wilson get pretty philosophical within this framework, and “The Black Rider” considers everything from basic issues of mortality to complex ones of free will, addiction and fate — “That’s the way the potato mashes,” goes Burroughs’ long, terrific, rhyming litany on the subject of the way of the world, “That’s the way the market crashes.” All the performers appear with stark white makeup in a production that’s decidedly ghoulish. “So come on in,” Waits tells us in the opening song. “It ain’t no sin/Take off your skin/And dance around in your bones … ”
His collaborators do bring out more of Wilson’s wicked wit than one will see when he collaborates with, say, Philip Glass (“Einstein on the Beach”) or stages a Wagner opera (his production of “Lohengrin” played at the L.A. Opera last year). Wilson has been funny before, but not quite this frequently or effectively. To be sure, it’s macabre humor, appropriate to the Faustian storyline and cabaret-ish tone, and it stems from some of his trademark use of juxtaposition. A bride, for example, sings a sweet song about her upcoming nuptials (“It soon will be my wedding day/I’ll give my love a wedding ring”) while walking on top of the rubbery dead animals her beloved clerk has slaughtered to win her hand.
The show does drag pretty severely in the long first act; Wilson’s sensibility is modern, but his indulgences are baroque. After a strong, jaunty start that’s shockingly welcoming for a Wilson show, the show gets quite abstruse quite quickly. And despite the ever-striking qualities of the painterly images, there just aren’t enough pick-me-ups.
The show doesn’t really peak until the end of the first act, in a sequence where Nigel Richards (dressed all in red by costumer Frida Parmeggiani, with long hair flowing down one side) belts out the tale of a man who gave in to the devil while he intertwines with long, elastic bands, in front of a small backdrop with a painting of a Western canyon, with the stage populated with blue objects suggesting skulls. Don’t try to comprehend — just appreciate.
Act II is more consistently stimulating, as the superb performers get an opportunity to show off during discrete sequences that put Waits’ and Burroughs’ work center stage. Mary Margaret O’Hara, as an untraditional, often squeaky ingenue, sings the evocative “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” while Richard Strange — who stands through most of the show in a giant, coffin-like box — stares down. John Vickery, a dynamic performer if ever there was one, delivers a wacky multicharacter monologue; he looks like Uncle Fester doing a Robin Williams routine, but it works.
And then there’s Matt McGrath as the unfortunate Wilhelm. McGrath gives a performance that’s just extraordinarily varied and controlled. He can do Wilson’s trademark slow-walking (not as easy as it looks), dance in a manner that portrays awkwardness without being awkward and bend his face into all sorts of strangely expressive exaggerations. Oh, and sing, quite fantastically, both high-pitched songs of post-adolescent love and raspy ones expressing the depth of a lost soul.
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets