Special Report: The Black Rider

By Heather Clisby
Movie Magazine International
"The Black Rider" has galloped into town and quickly become the show not to be missed. Directed by Robert Wilson, written by William S. Burroughs, music by Tom Waits, starring Marianne Faithfull - how could one possibly avoid it? Though "The Black Rider" has been around for some time, this is the first visit to San Francisco and the only American stop on the tour.

Based on a German yarn, this Expressionist fable presents star-crossed lovers forbidden to marry, unless the hopeful groom, a lowly clerk, can become an expert marksman like his future father-in-law, a legendary hunter. The young man ends up cutting a deal with The Devil which, of course, ends in blood-soaked tragedy.

The production is a visual and textural delight - moody, vibrant lighting, crinkly paper coats, lime green backdrops and thick blood-red wool costumes. The liberal use of white garish make-up presented the cast as The Addams Family by way of Edward Gorey. Already a fan of Tom Waits, the music did not disappoint me. The score was covered with his sticky paw prints, revealed by his signature ominous-carnival-haunt infusions and loaded up with baleful poetry. In the dirty, seemy underbelly of life, Waits is an expert witness.

Truth be told, I was not thrilled with Faithfull's performance it could just have easily been done by Kathleen Turner or Patti LuPone someone with a bit more devilish flair. I need more than make-up here, people. Glenn Close, even. Much of Faithfull's lackluster performance can be attributed to her flat, mannish singing style, but her wooden movements did not allow her "PegLeg" character much sensual darkness.

However, outstanding performances were delivered, particularly by Nigel Richards, who played Robert, the hunting boy preferred by the bride's father. The extreme facial gestures and commitment to the sheer physicality of his character were enough, but when he revealed an achingly rich singing voice, I was smitten. (His is the single red-clad character depicted in all the promotions.) He was scary, seductive, captivating everything I wanted Faithfull to be. In fact, Richards actually takes over her role during the matinees.

Post-intermission, many folks chose not to return, perhaps due to the odd pacing of the production. There were long periods of silence and achingly slow stage movements that, I believe, were intended to invoke moody spots of reflection on the precarious nature of guns. (To review, in 1969, William Burroughs, high as a kite, played a fatal game of William Tell with his common-law wife, Joan. Long story short: Mrs. Burroughs got a bullet through the forehead and William got a writing career.) The sub-title of the production is "The Casting of the 12 Magic Bullets" and we are to ponder the idea that the bullets occasionally have a will of their own, especially when provided by The Devil.

The Feds may pay me a visit after this suggestion, but after about 20 minutes into the show, my companion and I lamented that a mind-altering substance would've helped the experience along. Clearly, it would've at least put us on the same lofty level as the creators.
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The Black Rider