Theater Of The Absurd

tbr2.jpg 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.

Photo from blackrider.org website by Craig Schwartz.

5 Replies to “Theater Of The Absurd”

  1. Ok, so this was one show I was enticed to see by the adverstisments and the allure of a somewhate progressive stage design and bold color application. The end result, surreal, psuedo avant garde theater. Not to pan the production, but at time, the gutteral moans of the characters overshadowed the dialogue. the story was amusing from the beginning, but the clicks and chatter from the characters became an annoyance. this coupled with our seats were in the balcony made it a moderately crappy experience; can someone tell theatre goers in LA to think about their fellow patron and please sit back so we can see? Sufice to say, and end this rant, it was somewhat enjoyable, but we abbreviated this theatrical experience and left at intermission.

  2. Being a bit short on time presently, I wish I was better at conciseness.

    In short, I was excited to catch this show Saturday, and, in short, I didn’t like it.

    This review of the show, by the way, is completely excellent. I almost perfectly encapsulates my own major feelings about the show as well, except that I don’t give the same leeway for the few charming and fantastic moments of the show.

    Rather, I left with the feeling that the project was conceptually flawed, even if mostly well-execuuted. Not that the book or the music were necesarily flawed. It seemed more like the abstract and absurd presentation, despite being at times interesting and engaging, did absolutely nothing to enhance, convey or progress either the story or the music.

    I’ll certainly second the characterization of O’Hara’s rendition of “I’ll Shoot the Moon” as being worthy of repeated listening. I was nearly moved to tears by the beauty of this number (minus the inexplicable shrieking that plagues some of the show numbers).

    I’d definitely like to add to the review that the musicians were very kicked complete a**.

    I wouldn’t say that The Black Rider is worth the affair, but if you’re a fan of Tom Waits or William S. Burroughs or Robert Wilson or if the above picture looks interesting to you, you *must not* miss this show. You might even like it. Personally, I’m *extremely* disappointed, but I certainly could not have missed this show.

    Again, Will, your review was so on-the-money. Great, great review.

  3. I have not seen it yet. However, I am a heavy Tom Waits devotee and I find the album “The Black Rider” (from 1993) to be yummy in the first order. Has anyone seen the show having previously loved the album? I’m very interested in the experience that they had, as I’m a bit of an agoraphobic and I want to hedge my bets. Thanks everyone. And thanks to Will for such thoughtful contributions to the interweb thingy. I dare any of you to go to Barnes & Noble and find ten new books that are better written than Will Campbell’s work.

  4. Gerald – You certainly weren’t alone in evacuating the theater at the intermission — especially if you were in the balcony. For being on such a big stage and eye canday extravvaganza, there were too many parts of the performance that were delivered as if for a much smaller venue. I was in the back of the orchestra and I was pissed I didn’t bring my theater ‘noculars. I can only imagine how left out the folks upstairs must have felt.

    Ataki – Thanks for adding your thoughts and compliments. You are absolutely right, the musicians kicked ass and I am totally remiss in leaving out mention of them and musical director Bent Clausen.

    And Stu – Your kind words have blown me away. Thank you so much for such an appreciation.

    I wiish I could help hedge your bet. I will say that the musicality as mentioned above to Ataki is first rate and would be the primary reason I would attend again (or immediately snap up a cast recording). So do give some serious consideration to attending for that aspect alone. Especially inticing are the use of rare instruments such as the musical saw, didgeridoo, glass harmonica and much more.

  5. The performance is a very accurate/appropriate rendition of the album. The singing is excellent and the musicianship is absolutely first rate. I concur with complaints about the staging/production.

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