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The Dark Forest 

A spacious dream, a piece of music, a painting -- but not a play

Wednesday, Sep 8 2004
When The Black Rider premiered 14 years ago in Hamburg, I was living in Munich, where for some reason tickets weren't available; there was no Ticketmeister (or whatever) in Germany. I figured just going to Hamburg with the idea of buying a seat would be a bad gamble, since the play had already been touted in all the European papers. To console myself for what in retrospect was a dumb decision, I bought the soundtrack to The Black Rider and a copy of Der Freischütz, the Carl Maria von Weber opera drawn from the same fable, and tried to imagine from Tom Waits' music how William S. Burroughs had assembled a play -- his last major written work -- that referred not just to the German legend but also to his own grim history. I never could work out the plot. Something was missing, and now that I've seen this production I understand why: The Black Rider isn't even a play.

It's a piece of music. Director Robert Wilson hangs a magnificently strange, 2-1/2-hour work of choreography and song on a story that takes about three minutes to tell. When he hired Burroughs to write the "libretto," which is thin, I think Wilson wanted the old man's legend as a backdrop for the show even more than he needed his words.

Because the dialogue, frankly, sucks. It has an irritating minimalism that confuses the audience as often as it advances the plot. "A gun is not for fun," admonishes Bertram, a tall-haired forester who wants his daughter to marry a man who can shoot well. "Say what thou wilt, the milk will be spilt," warns Kuno, an oracular old forester. The Black Rider has never played in English before this current three-stop world tour, which takes the show from London to San Francisco to Sydney; it's the first time audiences have heard Burroughs' dialogue in its original language, rather than in German. But the words in whatever language are stilted, oblique, and willfully obscure; sometimes they even break the spell of Wilson's German expressionist dream.

Burroughs' big contribution to the show is his legend, which has been repeated lately in all the papers but goes, again, like this: In 1951, the man who would become an enigmatic godfather to the Beats recommended to his wife, Joan, that they play a game of William Tell at a party in Mexico. He placed a glass of gin on her head, stepped back a few paces, and -- high on heroin -- shot Joan through the head.

The Black Rider's basic story deals with a young man who wants to marry a forester's daughter but needs to prove himself as a marksman. The kid makes a deal with a diabolical Black Rider for seven magic bullets. The first six go anywhere the shooter aims; the seventh belongs to the devil. On his wedding day our hero gleefully aims at a bird in a tree, to show off, but the devil redirects bullet No. 7 into the heart of the bride.

For Wilson and Burroughs this story doesn't just parallel that of Joan; it's also a metaphor for drug addiction. The brilliant parts of Burroughs' libretto come in the monologues, which are more like spoken songs, when we can hear the old junkie's unmistakable, hip prose voice: "You think you can take them bullets and leave 'em, do you? Just save a few for your bad days? Well, we all have those bad days when we can't hit for shit."

Wilson dresses up the show as an angular, colorful homage to German expressionism. Pine trees look like paper cutouts; characters in pale makeup move with stiff arms akimbo. Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inform the mood of the show, but so does The Scream by Edvard Munch. The characters stand around with pallid mouths agape, looking horrified even on happy occasions.

So The Black Rider is a painting as well as a piece of music. Wilson even thinks of himself as a painter. He's designed the set, lights, and movement of the cast with a coherent expressionist vision. (His whole approach to theater may come from modern painting, which rejected old-fashioned narrative.) Still, haunting sets are nice to look at only for so long; the show takes wing when the Magic Bullets Band starts to play the brilliant score. Waits composed it for brass, piano, lots of drums, a musical saw, a glass harmonica, and a ukulele, among many other instruments, and the musicians here (directed by Brent Clausen) are as expert and expressive as the actors.

Leading the cast is Marianne Faithfull as the Black Rider, Pegleg. She has a mannish, lyrical, whiskey-coarse voice that serves beautifully on songs like "Just the Right Bullets," "The Black Rider," and "The Last Rose of Summer." Hearing her sing those might be worth the price of admission alone, but other cast members, luckily, do well with the important ballads.

For example, Matt McGrath and Mary Margaret O'Hara, as the hero, Wilhelm, and his bride, Käthchen, sing a transporting version of "The Briar and the Rose" while hanging suspended from wires. Wilhelm looks like an innocent German boy -- say, Hansel -- dressed up for the MC role in Cabaret; Käthchen looks like a mechanical music-box Gretel. They float around behind a scrim lit in a rich, deep, watery blue. "I tried to tear them both apart," they sing. "I felt a bullet in my heart/ All dressed up in spring's new clothes --/ The briar and the rose."

What can I say? It almost made me cry.

The miracle of Robert Wilson is that he can do that without relying on a plot. His best shows are spacious dreams, and The Black Rider creates a dark German forest where your imagination can stand up, walk around, and find itself pleasantly lost.


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