Arts Club Theatre

The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets by Tom Waits, Robert Wilson, and William S. Burroughs

Dates and Venue 16 January – 9 February 2008 Monday at 8pm, Tuesday at 7.30pm, Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm, and Saturday at 2pm | Granville Island Stage

Director Ron Jenkins Musical Director Corinne Kessel Choreographer and Assistant Director Marie Nychka Set/Costume/Properties Marissa Kochanski Lighting Michael Kruse Movement Coach Amy Kubanek

Reviewer John Jane

As a Tom Waits fan, I’ve had his Black Rider CD recording in my collection since its release in 1993. Initially, I found the music difficult fully to appreciate in absence of its theatrical context. Yet, after seeing the Arts Club presentation at the Granville Island Stage this week, I was astonished to find how well his mix of maddening melodies and ambitous orchestrations perfectly compliment Robert Wilson’s stylish pièce de théâtre.

Literature and folklore are chock-full of cautionary tales about making bargains with the devil. The story of bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul in exchange for musical genius is legendary. This particular storyline has been adapted from August Apel and Friedrich Laun’s Bohemian folktale Der Freischütz (famously made into an opera by Weber) and recounts the romantic fable of Kathchen and Wilhelm.

Kathchen’s father, Bertram (Jon Baggaley), a woodsman wants his to marry a hunter. Wilhelm, however, is totally inept with guns; “You won't go home with a bunting if you blow a hundred rounds” – as the devil later notes. Determined to marry his true love, he heads off into the forest to practice his aim. He meets Peg Leg (a.k.a. The Black Rider, a.k.a. the devil), who offers him a stash of magic bullets with which it’s impossible to miss the target.

All goes according to plan until Wilhelm runs out of ammunition; he must then return to the forest to find Peg Leg to acquire one more bullet. On his wedding day, he must prove his marksmanship by shooting a white dove, but instead of finding its target, the bullet deviates from its flight and kills Kathchen. Wilhelm, realizing he has been betrayed by Peg Leg, goes insane and is carted off to an asylum.

Nothing is understated in this avante-garde production. While the show’s cynical premise may seem dark, it’s played as a surreal, bacchanalian farce with some sharp gallows humour and despite its predictably tragic ending, Black Rider lifts its audience up rather than bringing it down.

Michael Scholar, Jr. is masterfully camp as the slick, villainous Peg Leg. His roguish rendition of "Just the Right Bullets" was one of the show’s highlights. After seeing his performance, it’s impossible to imagine a fragile Marianne Faithfull as the choice for this role in the London production. Rachael Johnston and Kevin Corey were terrifically unconventional as the ill-fated lovers. Their wild performance of the show-stopping "The Briar and the Rose" was highly entertaining.

The excellent musical ensemble, Devil's Rubato Band, featuring accomplished musicians Jeff Unger (piano), Corrine Kessel (trombone, clarinet, and accordion), and Dale Ladouceur (bass) played in full view of the audience complete with production make-up. Their interpretation of Waits’s quirky score provided a novel carnival atmosphere. Kessel, who has been connected with Black Rider since its inception, gets a chance to ham it up on stage as the Messenger.

The stark set design consisting only of three full height panels, intended to represent blood-red drapes adheres to November Theatre’s minimalist aesthetic.

Black Rider:The Casting of the Magic Bullets is both expressive and expressionistic. Robert Wilson’ theatrical style, Tom Waits’s songs, and William S. Burroughs’ book have combined to create a tour de force.

© 2008 John Jane