If the idea of watching a fractured fable with music by Tom Waits and book by William S. Burroughs is your thing, you’re going to want to love the The Black Rider now playing through June 11 at the Ahmanson Theater. But after all’s said and sung, loving it might be easier said than done.
Without a doubt this is a marvelous and entirely unique theatrical experience and there are eye-popping things at work up there on the Ahmanson stage, most of it orchestrated to stunning visual effect by director Robert Wilson. And the performances are top-notch and full-tilt as well. But while the blend of Waits’ melodies and lyrics find an engaging match paired up with tripmaster extraordinaire Burroughs’ text, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I was watching some wicked blend of The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Cabaret meets Beetlejuice — which sounds like it could and should be a blast, but this wasn’t… at least not an unqualified one.
In a nutshell, the tale ain’t anything fresh. You have a clerk (Matt McGrath) in love with the daughter (Mary Margaret O’hara) of a hunter (Dean Robinson) who refuses to let her marry him unless he can prove his marksmanship. Finding he can’t shoot for shit he sells his soul to the devil (Vance Avery) in exchange for some magic bullets, and his immediate prowess with a gun changes her father’s mind and the wedding’s on. But as the big day draws nigh, he’s been challenged to a shooting contest. To hedge his bets he hits the proverbial crossroads where he accepts from the devil one more magic bullet to ensure his success. But at the contest when the clerk takes aim and fires at the wooden target the bullet travels a devilishly different trajectory and kills his bride-to-be, driving him straightjacket mad into the looney bin.
Without having read the plot synopsis in the show program prior to the curtain going up, frankly I wouldn’t have been able to follow along with the rather muddled telling of such a simple yarn. That could be because I’m not hip and cool enough or because it’s just not very well told. Couple that with some dumbfoundingly repetitive monologuery, an intermission shoehorned in at an inappropriate point in the proceedings, and a mind-numbingly indulgent and hurry-the-fuck-up-already sloooooow climactic scene and there was plenty to leave this theatergoer scratching his head.
But blessedly it’s the vivid imagery, the over-the-top performances of some super-stylized characterizations, and Waits’ marvelous tunes that sooth over the doubts and more than making up for the show’s shortcomings. O’Hara’s compellingly adorable rendition of “I’ll Shoot The Moon” is worth hearing repeatedly (pity there’s no show soundtrack available; only a studio version done by Waits), as is McGrath’s tortured “Lucky Day.” John Vickery’s narrator is riveting, and Avery’s demon openly competes for the most stolen scenes with the mesmerizing Nigel Richards who plays the clerk’s rival.
So in the end The Black Rider is worth the affair. You may not leave as enamored as you wanted to be with it when you arrived, but there is plenty to embrace in its bold imagination and daring, uncompromised originality.