Halloween San Francisco Events
Related Articles: Theater, All

The Black Rider

Innovative Musical Theater with Hipster Credentials

With hipster credentials like no other musical in existence, The Black Rider's reputation precedes it, raising hopes almost impossibly high. For the uninitiated, a little context will improve the viewing experience: William S. Burroughs, Beat generation demigod, author of Junky and Naked Lunch, wrote the libretto; Tom Waits, snarl-voiced singer and unholy channeler of all the dark impulses in American music, wrote the score; and throw in Marianne Faithfull, former lover of Mick Jagger and pop chanteuse whose checkered history includes years of drug addiction, and whose once-soprano voice has been transformed by hard living into a rumbling deep whiskey tenor, starring as the devil. Give them a wild no-right-angles German expressionist set design from Robert Wilson, one of the world's most famous opera directors, and whatever they do, even if it doesn't always make perfect sense, is going to look and sound like nothing you've ever seen.

Based on a 19th century German tale, The Black Rider tells the story of Wilhelm, a clerk who will not be allowed to marry his love, Kathchen, unless he learns to hunt. Unable to kill anything except a vulture, he makes a deal with the devil: she gives him magic bullets that will kill anything he wants them to. But, as in most devil-deals, there is a big catch and Wilhelm will not get away without losing the thing he wants most in the world. Here again, it helps to know that Burroughs 'accidentally' shot and killed his wife while trying to show off his marksmanship. The allegorical setting and highly stylized acting expresses Burroughs' very real guilt and grief more poignantly than realism never could.

Matt McGrath plays Wilhelm as a wide-eyed lovesick sap, a mugging silent-movie comic character with wide eyes and rubbery legs. Marianne Faithfull is literally sexy as hell, tempting him into certain doom. But though her indescribable voice is as amazing to listen to as ever, she doesn't project as much evil as one would expect from the devil incarnate. The surprise standout of the production is Nigel Richards, playing several roles including the suitor who Kathchen's father wants her to marry. With a Frankenstein-like walk, and a bizarre open-mouthed rictus facial expression that he holds through most of the show, he certainly exudes the most believable creepiness, singing with a voice that goes from falsetto to Tom Waits-style growl to heart-rending operatic yodel. Richards takes over Marianne Faithfull's role on her off nights, which is enough to make this reviewer want to see it again with him in the lead.

The alert student of the arts will be able to spot echoes of Brecht, Beckett, German Expressionism, carnival sideshows, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and Vaudeville magic acts. The simple story does get lost in some places, replaced by extended scenes of silent weirdness that are pretty to look at but don't mean a whole lot. Despite a few small misgivings, The Black Rider is still one of the most innovative and interesting takes on musical theater to ever come along with a once-in-a-lifetime cast. Go see it -- and expect to have strange dreams afterward.