Internationally acclaimed theater innovator Wilson conceived and directed this vaudevillian, German-expressionist forest cabaret; the late, raw-tongued Naked Lunch author Burroughs penned the libretto; and the gravel-voiced Waits whipped up the gritty score.
A gloriously hellbent carnival, Black Rider is based on the Faust-like tale in Carl Maria von Weber's 1821 opera The Free Shooter. It's a fantastical story about a young clerk named Wilhelm (played by Mark McGrath) who can win the hand of his beloved, Katchen, only if he becomes an ace marksman like her father. But Wilhelm's shooting capabilities are limited: He shoots like a girl and hunts like a rabbit. Desperate, he seeks the help of a manipulative bargain-maker named Pegleg (Marianne Faithfull), who gives him magic bullets that will -- save for one -- hit anything Wilhelm desires. Wilhelm is able to prove himself a strong shooter and win Katchen's hand, but on his wedding day he is challenged once again and is forced to use his last bullet. He winds up killing his bride.
Burroughs' contributions to Black Rider have ironic undertones: Showing off his marksman's know-how, he accidentally shot and killed his own wife in 1951 while trying to shoot an apple off her head. Her death marked a pivotal change in Burroughs' career; he began to work more seriously and relied on his writing to save him from being forever trapped inside the incident. Despite his hard knocks, Burroughs produced work that became known for its humor, and the text of Black Rider is comedic and marked by drug-induced and Beat movement-inspired experiences culled from his eight decades of life. Waits' songs, executed by an eight-piece band playing odd instruments such as the glass harmonica and the drunk piano, riff off of Burroughs' writing in a darkly poetic style typical of the singer.
Ultimately, though, it's Wilson's vision and knack for theatrical grandeur that create the diabolically folkloric spectacle. Combining light, sound, and sculpture, his mobile set breathes life as if it were another character in the play. His woods are a combination of picturesque and burlesque, and the production features giant harsh shadows, underwater scenes, and set pieces that change size from moment to moment.
The play begins with a prologue introducing the characters, who stream out of a mysterious black box. The Devil leads with this song: "So come on in/ It ain't no sin/ Take off your skin/ And dance around in your bones ... Come along with the Black Rider/ We'll have a gay old time ...."