Black Rider at the Ahmanson Theatre - Shakespeare on Acid

(L to R) Matt McGrath as Wilhelm and Vance Avery as Pegleg; Mary Margaret O'Hara as Katchen, Joan Mankin as Anne, and Dean Robinson as Bertram

Wednesday night April 26th, Robert Wilson, Tim Burroughs, and Tom Waits presented their original musical, 'The Black Rider and the Casting of the Magic Bullets,' at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The best way to describe this hallucinatory nightmare is: the drug-addict child of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe's Faustus.  But wait, there's more...This child happens to have an obsession with all things Vaudeville!

(L toR) Nigel Richards as Robert and John Vickery as Old Uncle

The story goes:

Once upon a time there was an old forester (Bertram played by Dean Robinson) who lived with his wife (Anne played by Joan Mankin) and daughter (Katchen played by Mary Margaret O'Hara). When it came time for his daughter to marry, he chose for her a hunter, for he was getting old and wanted to maintain his legacy. But, his daughter was in love with another (Wilhelm played by Matt McGrath) and sadly he was not a huntsman, he was a clerk, and the father would not approve of this union. But the daughter was determined to marry the man she loved, so she said to him, "If you can prove your marksmanship as a hunter, my father will allow us to marry."

And so the clerk went into the forest. When he fired, he missed everything he aimed at and only brought back a vulture.

The father disapproved and it seemed hopeless, but the clerk was determined to triumph. He went into the forest again, and this time, the devil (Pegleg played by Vance Avery) appeared to him and offered him a handful of magic bullets. With these bullets, he could hit all the game he aimed at even with his eyes closed. But the devil warned him, "some of these bullets are for thee and some are for me." As the wedding day approached, the clerk began to get nervous, as there was to be a shooting contest and he was afraid he needed more magic bullets. Although warned that "the devil's bargain is a fool's bargain," he went to the crossroads and the devil appeared as before and gave him one more magic bullet. On the day fo the wedding, the clerk took aim at a wooden dove, and with the devil looking on, the bullet circled the crowd of guests and hit its mark: his bride, his only love. The clerk ended up in the insane asylum stark raving mad and joined all the other lunatics in the devil's carnival.

Mary Margaret O'Hara as Katchen and Matt McGrath as Wilhem

This story is originally found in literary form in a collection of German tales written by  Johann August Apel and Friedrich Laun in 1810, and became a central text of German romanticism. In 1821, Carl Maria von Weber transformed it into an opera which triumphantly premiered in Berlin. Present day, Wilson, Burroughs, and Waits added some Shakespeare and drugs to get a musical that is somewhere between a Vaudevillian nightmare and drug-induced hallucination.

The company of "The Black Rider"

The play opens with a black coffin shaped box, upright but pivoting on one of its corners out of which emerges the Devil followed by a procession of the weirdest characters each with an individualized interpretative walk. It is an interesting opening that grabs the audience members by their throats.

Nigel Richards as Man on Stag

Like a true Wilsonian epic, the landscapes are seductive, saturated with color, overflowing with high tech wizardry, and distort perspectives of line and gesture. They aptly convey the hallucinatory intensity of the archetypal characters and their struggles with love, evil, and human folly. The backdrop to the sets are blown-up charcoal drawings. One set has a table and chairs, impossibly stylized cut out from a curious angle and suspended above the stage. The set was austere, with the outlines of objects, like trees and a gun, serving as the only demarcations between stage and prop. What enthrals is less the set than the lighting and the colors of Wilson's simplified but eclectic designs. The people look odd -- for example, the forester's hair stands up like trees, Georg is missing both his middle fingers and constantly has his mouth stretched wide open, and the Devil has a long, thin pony tail that whips back and forth with every swaggering step. The costuming and make-up were eccentric, weird, outlandish, and utterly impressive. Bright red, purple, black, gray, and meaning-packed splashes of white were the primary colors of both the landscape and costumes. With a uniform color scheme, the boundaries between landscape and costumes became so blurred that it seemed they were one entity.

(L to R) Richard Strange as Kuno, Mary Margaret O'Hara as Katchen and Matt McGrath as Wilhem

The percussionists work extremely hard with saws and unusual sounding instruments creating a cacophony. Almost everyone eventually takes up a more rasping and gravely delivery. Katchen's (Mary Margaret O'Hara) sweet singing voice offers a nice contrast, although some of the notes were probably a little too high pitched for her vocal range. Matt McGrath succeeds in making us feel his pain and suffering as he spirals downward to lunacy and into the Devil's clutches. However, with the assuming of melodramatic psychotic behaviors and bizarre appearances, many of the characters are caricatures of themselves and fail to engage the audience's emotions.

The company of "The Black Rider"

Conducive to Shakespearian tragedies, salient foreshadowing was apparent throughout the musical. Our tragic hero, Wilhelm, was ill-fated to become insane. Thus, the characters all possessed behaviors that replicated the physical symptoms of psychosis or the physical side effects of drugs! Body movements were rigid or catatonic, holding one position for an immensely long period of time. Others suffered from sever echolalia, meaningless repetition of the verbal utterances of another person. Thus, they repeated whole soliloquies or only the last word of a soliloquy over and over again. This dramatic tool was quite effective in highlighting the doomed outcome, for soliloquies often served as the voice of reason. The actors were absolutely awe-inspiring in their very outlandish portrayal of these strange psychotic behaviors. These performances, although magnified and exaggerated, made it quite clear to the audience that this was Wilhem's future. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, everyone including the audience knows the hero's ill-fated destiny, except for the hero. This inability to see beyond himself is inevitably his fatal flaw.  

(L to R) Vance Avery as Pegleg; Richard Strange as Kuno and Dean Robertson as Bertram

The dramatic intensity of such eccentric psychosis-filled performances was relieved by side show acts, found only in Vaudeville. These, too, were nightmarish hallucinations in their own right. After Wilhelm kills his bride and almost immediately suffers from a psychotic break, he rips his jacket from his body with madness and rage. Like a true psychotic whose affect is seriously inappropriate for the situation, music from a Vaudevillian striptease begins to play complete with whistles and cheers! This contrast between the cataclysm of Wilhem's psyche and the sordid stripping accompaniment creates a distorted blend of tragedy and pleasure.

Mary Margaret O'Hara as Katchen and Matt McGrath as Wilhem

After with this tragic farewell striptease, the characters walk, swagger, hobble, or convulse back inside of their coffin. The Devil, a narcissist through and through, remains on stage to give a final song, a bow, and to collect a single rose thrown on stage by the band. And thus concludes the story of love, evil, and drugs!  Do I recommend it? Of course...Just read MacBeth and Faustus first!

"Come along with the Black Rider
We'll have a gay old time
Lay down in the web of the black spider
I'll drink your blood like wine
    So come on in
    It aint's no sin
    Take off your skin
And dance around in your bones
So come along with the Black Rider
We'll have a gay old time" (lyrics from "The Black Rider")

Nigel Richards as Georg Schmid

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