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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Black Rider

Step right up, suckers and suckees! Tain't no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones.--- Pegleg

At first the production seems Brechtian, a mysterious fable one simply observes, but by the second act it becomes as spellbinding as its subject, the demon Pegleg summoned by the lovelorn clerk, Wilhelm. Based on German folklore, this Rider has many layers.

Director/set and lighting designer Robert Wilson brings his immersion in Japanese Noh Theatre with its deliberate movements that force the audience to slow down. Composer and lyricist Tom Waits brings a contemporary sensibility to tunes with a lyric folkloric lilt, numbers with a pounding passion and charged poetic words. The late legendary Beat writer William S. Burroughs's text is etched in acid and, like his most famous book Naked Lunch, takes no prisoners as he tells Wilhelm's story.

In love with a forester's daughter whose father disapproves because he's not a huntsman, Wilhelm follows his beloved Kathchcn's advice and tries to improve his marksmanship. But he can't and, in desperation, accepts the offer of Pegleg whose costume alone should give anyone pause. The floor-length tails on his frock coat give the impression of a tail twitching between his legs, the long pony tail of hair hanging down his back has a sinister twitch, his scarlet jump suit is traditionally Satanic, his words come in an unearthly growl but its his staring eyes and garish smile that spell it out. Wilhelm accepts Pegleg's offer of magic bullets. And the fun begins, though the end is far from funny

The production looks like a surreal fantasy but we soon discover that the whole thing is a throbbing subtext to the very familiar metaphor of what happens to those who sell their souls to the devil. Frida Parmeggiani costumes the cast in vivid solid colors which often have the square lines of ancient Oriental menswear, as well as strapless white wedding gowns with gauzy veils which underline the sacrificial power of the marriage ritual. There's a talking portrait of Kuno, the old forester, an elderly man with long grey hair, who looms over the stage like the power of convention. Wilson's cardboard trees have almost human shapes, making them as grotesque as most of the cast.

Waits' score contains some lovely ballads, especially "November" in Act I and Kathchen's song in Act II. That's The Way which uses Burroughs' verses and patterns with the hypnotic repetition of a spell and I'll Shoot The Moon are equally powerful. Act II begins with a repetitive step pattern by Wilhelm, in which each step gives a strange squawking sound. It's a little overdrawn, as though the director wanted to be sure we got the point of some obscure joke. The soft-shoe number between Wilhelm and Pegleg's Doubles works better. The demon-conjuring scene beneath a full moon is stunningly effective.

The cast's total absorption in their characters and the production contributes strongly to its success. In addition to their stylized movements, they often freeze with open mouths like Edvard Much's painting "The Scream".

The show is opened by John Vickery, who does much of the narration, an imposing figure with a magnificent speaking voice. Matt McGrath finds the core of Wilhelm, a simple boy in love. His final scene, in which that core is shattered, is all the more devastating because it wasn't foreshadowed. Mary Margaret O’Hara played Kathchen with enchantment and skill. Her stage presence was as strong as her fine voice. Nige Richards as a hermaphrodite, Georg Schmid, stopped the show with a powerful solo and a voice whose remarkable range expressed the bisexual qualities of his character.

But this is Satan's show and Vance Avery who plays the character called Pegleg is riveting. There's a lot of the Emcee in Cabaret in his performance, partly because he's played that role so often, but partly because the director sees the grotesque conventions of German Expresionism as a solid underpinning for his concept. Avery avoids caricature by ending with the chilling feat of making Pegleg one of us.

The visual power Wilson creates in The Black Rider is breathtaking and unpredictable. The theatricality of it never lets us forget that we must pay homage to theatre and, for once, theatre absolutely deserves it.

For a review of The Black Rider in London go here.

Music & Lyrics by Tom Waits, Text by William S. Burroughs
Director/Scenic and Lighting Design: Robert Wilson
Cast: John Vickery (Wilhelm's Old Uncle, Duke), Vance Avery (Pegleg), Monika Tahal (Attendant/Warden/Bird/Wilhelm's Double/Ghost), Gabriella Santinelli (Bridesmaid/Pegleg Double/Ghost), Nigel Richards (Robert, a hunting boy/Man on Stag/Georg Schmid), Richard Strange (Kuno, the Old Forester), Sona Cervena (Bird/Messnger/Ghost), Jake Thornton (Young Kuno/Warden/Bird/Ghost), Joan Mankin (Anne, Bertram's wife), Mary Margaret O'Hara (Kathchen, Bertram and Anne's daughter), Matt McGrath (Wilhelm), Dean Robinson (Bertram)
Costume Design: Frida Parmeggiani
Running Time: Two and a half hours, one intermission
Running Dates: April 22-June 11, 2006
Where:. The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on April 26.
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