The Shotgun Players: The Black Rider

“How in the world could Black Rider not work?” is not the question to be asking.  Rather, how could the Bay Area’s Premier Theater Company, The Shotgun Players, make it better?  It’s a given that the multimedia experience The Black Rider is a cult cornerstone.

Tom Waits’ music is a unique combination of jazz/vaudeville/folk.  With his languid, gravely voice and swagger, Waits’ music is timeless, atmospheric, lush and with diabolical undertones.  Tie this together with William S. Burroughs, a kindred spirit and inspiration to Waits.  Burroughs’ uses his trademark stream-of-consciousness prose and surreal poetry into his own interpretation of a German fairy tale about a Faustian pact.  And if anyone knows about shaking hands with the devil, it’s Waits and Burroughs.  Their work is esoteric genius and boarderline insanity.

The Black Rider is a reimagining of the German fairytale Freischütz (“Freeshooter”).  The tale follows the protagonist, Wilhelm, an office workers who is in love with Katchen, the daughter of Bertram and Anne.  Bertram favors the hunter Robert as his daughter’s suitor, thinking that Robert will be a better provider because of his hunting skills.  In order to win favor with Bertram and thus his daughter Katchen, Wilhelm makes a deal with the ominous character, Pegleg, for magic bullets that will unfailingly hit their target.  The caveat with this deal is that of the seven bullets that Wilhelm is given, the last one is reserved for Pegleg’s discretion.

The Black Rider was originally staged in 1990 in Hamburg, Germany by director Robert Wilson.  The first run had a set design with an aesthetic of a Fritz Lang or Ingmar Bergman film: surrealist, diagonal and abstract.  The costuming like silent-era cinema horror movies, complete with monochrome black costumes, thick, white face makeup and painted, angular hairlines.

With Shotgun Players’ tackling this phantasmagoria, Jackson gives it a modern, midwestern take. The focal point of the stage is Pegleg’s Freak Show as portence.  There is no better place for the freakshow to be than out in the middle of the woods, surrounded by dead trees.  Like in most American Horror movies, all bad deeds are executed in remote areas, removed from civilization, where refinement erodes leaving animal impulse.  The scenery exudes Southern Gothic vibes, like we’re about to witness a nightmarish, mythical take on Tennessee Williams.

Not only is the set appropriate (Great job, Sean Riley), but director Mark Jackson is able to slyly use it creatively, being able to turn the pictures on the facade as a target practice to show off the efficacy of Pegleg’s bullets.  The actors race in and around like children in the trees located in the stage’s peripherals, a touch Burroughs would have approved of.  A casket shuttles in and out through an opening on the bottom sign of the festival’s tent as a vehicle for introducing characters.  Four trees serve as anchors for tethering Wilhelm to show his entrapment in the cursed deal he has made.

With having this set design as it is and the blocking largely awkward, robotic, acrobatic and slapstick, the music fits like an old boot on its wearer’s foot.  The house band does such service to Waits’ compositions that you wonder if Jackson (director) had more of a Tom Waits video in mind rather than a showcasing for both Burroughs and Waits; when you see the band high up above the stage, going through the many different brass or stringed instruments, juxtaposed to a creepy forest and Freak Show Big Top, you really do feel like you are an audience member to bizarre human oddities.  This interpretation of Black Rider screams Tom Waits.

El Beh, Elizabeth Carter and Stephen Hess play Robert, Anne and Bertram, respectively.  Each have singing bravado and acting chops to match, all frenzy and high octane for living up to the source material.  Kevin Clarke plays a myriad of characters, showing versatility, but shines with his opening and closing as the ringleader of the Freak Show.

Grace Ng plays the foolish, lovelorn Wilhelm.  Ng approaches Wilhelm with freneticism, maniacal, wide-eyed expressions and spastic contortions and movements.  She is not just a daring actress but also a physical one.

Rotimi Agbakiaka takes the most impressive interpretation as Pegleg (a.k.a., The Devil).  He floats with flamboyance and grace, like a toned-down but equally seductive Doctor Frankenfurter.  His eyes are demonstrative, his movements and gestures smooth and fluid, just like how one would imagine Mephistopheles.  And when Rotimi is gliding and gesticulating across stage in his flashy, glittery black, red and gold outfit as Pegleg, he is more peacock than man.  It makes sense that Rotimi would have the mime background; his movements are grandiose and more telling than words.

But the biggest “mic-drop” moment of the night goes to Noelle Viñas, playing Katchen.  Though she steps up to the challenge like Ng of physical feats, Viñas takes the solo of “I’ll Shoot the Moon.”  As she is sweeping you off your feet, you appreciated the brilliant casting.  Viñas brushes away Waits’ growl and gravel and replaces it with satin and silk.  Like the way Cowboy Junkies did to “Sweet Jane” and “Blue Moon,” Viñas takes possession of the song, making it a beautifully haunting.  If the show had a singular highlight, this could be it.

Though the script is sometimes strenuous, this is part of the magic of Burroughs.  For something lighthearted but Beatnik, you can try this pleasantly bizarre interpretation of Burrough’s and Waits’ lovechild.  The cast and crew of Shotgun Players makes this a very friendly production.  But for those looking for a challenge and new stimulation in their entertainment, “Black Rider” will deliver.  The show runs until December 31st.  There’s still opportunity to witness this “gay old time.”