The imagery is what stays with you after leaving the almost three-hour production of The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, but I’m not sure if that’s the best thing that can be said for a musical. From the TV commercials, you might get the idea that the musical is melodic with a touch of vaudeville to be found.
There is a vaudeville atmosphere as well as some carny in this revival of Robert Wilson’s 1990 musical fable, an odd collaboration with Tom Waits (music and lyrics) and the late William S. Burroughs (book). Wilson, besides directing is credited with set and lights. The story is based upon an old Germanic tale that also inspired the German opera Der Freischutz (The Freeshooter) by Carl Maria von Weber and Friedrich Kind.
In Black Rider, a clerk (Matt McGrath) is in love with the huntsman’s daughter (Mary Margaret O’Hara). To gain her father’s approval for his suit, he must prove his ability as a hunter. Yet he’s a lousy shot and his rival (Nigel Richards) is not. The clerk, Wilhelm, makes a deal with the Black Rider (Vance Avery) who offers him magic bullets – bullets that will hit their mark no matter how bad the marksman. Yet there is one slight hitch – one bullet will be guided by the Black Rider himself. The opera had a happy ending, but this piece stays more true to the Germanic fairytale where there is no happily-ever-after ending.
One wonders about the material choice given that Burroughs, who was a drug addict, shot his lover in the head during an intoxicated William Tell act in Mexico City. He credits this event as his catalyst for becoming a writer. Yet perhaps the darkness and tragedy of Burroughs own life (he died in 1997) and the dysfunctional family he created also add to the aura surrounding this piece.
Although this is billed as a musical, none of the music is truly hummable nor are the lyrics particularly memorable – not even in the droning, repetitive manner of say, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical event. Visually, the production is stunning, drawing from German Expressionism that might be most familiar with audiences from old movies such as 1930s horror films that carried over the stylistic influences with dark and artistically designed sets. Wilson’s set pieces are geometrically shaped, but he favors skewed box shapes over rectangles. Right angles are generally avoided. The background colors are saturated and give the appearance of broad brush strokes. The characters are white-faced with black hair and exaggerated features. The costumes also carry over the geometric theme, with hard crisp lines.
The play begins with a box floating in the air, as if we are really at a magician’s performance. When the box finally settles down on the ground, out of it pops the whole cast of characters. Scenes of the fable are interspersed with comical scenes that are not particularly useful to moving the story forward. And should one question the wisdom of being a good shot, Wilson also includes a scene where Wilhelm and perhaps the rest of the hunters have downed so many deer that the stage is literally littered with their corpses. How many theatergoers can find romance there?
Visually stunning as it might be, someday at some revival, perhaps someone will slim down this production, which feels like a good idea that was allowed to become bloated because the collaborators were too indulgent with each other.
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, Ahmanson Theatre,
135 North Grand Ave., Downtown Los Angeles. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. matinees; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. $40-$95. Ends June 11.