The Black Rider

Review by Willard Manus

Beautiful. Maddening. Incomprehensible. Self-indulgent. Grotesque. Gutsy.

These are just a few of the adjectives that pop into mind when attempting to describe the Robert Wilson/Tom Waits/William Burrough musical fable, THE BLACK RIDER--THE CASTING OF THE MAGIC BULLETS, which is now on tap at the Ahmanson Theatre.

A reworking of a German folk tale (and opera) about the allure and consequences of making a pact with the devil, THE BLACK RIDER is visually striking. Wilson's trademark lighting and stage effects are much in evidence--the deep blacks and blues, the blazing reds, the highlighted Noguchi-like shapes (Wilson curated the current Isamu Noguchi exhibit at the Japanese-American National Museum), the highly stylized, slo-mo acting techniques (seen as well in his recent L.A. Opera production of Madama Butterfly). When Wilson tackles a theatrical project, he makes it his own.

His BLACK RIDER collaborators, Waits (original music and lyrics) and William Burroughs (text), have helped Wilson turn the folk tale into a Cabaretlike show, complete with M.C., jazzy musical riffs (echoes of Kurt Weill), and vaudeville turns (Mary Margaret O'Hara lampooning a nightclub chanteuse). Combine these elements with forest settings (Wilson goes heavy on the moonlight and mist), characters representing woodsmen, birds, animals and ghosts and you've got a grand and glorious...mess.

Burrough's narrative, largely having to do with the seven magic bullets (or wishes) the hero is awarded by the devil, is near-incomprehensible. Wait's songs are more telling (and vivid), but spoiled by the decision to make everyone sing the way he does--throatily and raspily. It's like looking a gift hoarse in the mouth.

There is dark fun and much eye-candy in THE BLACK RIDER, which was first produced in German in Hamburg sixteen years ago. For all its theatrical adventurousness and experimentation, though, it seems to have lost something in translation.

Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Call 213-628-2772 or visit