Also see Sharon's review of Li'l Abner
I am speaking, of course, of The Black Rider, the theatrical "event" (it defies more specific categorization) currently playing at the Ahmanson. The show is certain to divide audiences. Some will applaud Center Theatre Group's Artistic Director Michael Ritchie for bringing The Black Rider to Los Angeles, thanking him for introducing such an innovative and imaginative work to L.A.'s mainstream theatre audiences. Others will cancel subscriptions and see this as further evidence that Ritchie does not understand what Ahmanson audiences want to see.
The story itself is the mythical tale of a young man who makes a pact with the devil. The man, a clerk named Wilhelm, seeks to marry the daughter of an old forester, but the forester will not approve the marriage because Wilhelm is a lousy hunter. Distraught, Wilhelm sees a way to gain his bride when the devil appears and offers him magic bullets - bullets that will hit their targets no matter how bad Wilhelm's aim. There's a bit more to the story - as you might imagine, a deal with the devil is bound to have disastrous consequences. The program for The Black Rider contains a full synopsis, which gives away the ending of the show. I encourage you to read it anyway; The Black Rider proceeds as though everyone knows how it is going to end. The point of The Black Rider is not found in the end of the story, but the journey there.
The Black Rider takes the form of a play within a play. The players are all members of a carnival of lunatics, and they therefore show us Wilhelm's story as filtered through their own insanities. They don't sing songs in the traditional manner, but often intentionally alter pitch or range as their particular quirks compel them. Lines are sometimes stuttered or awkwardly emphasized. Movement is preferred over dance, with precisely choreographed steps and gestures as the order of the day.
That said, with this love-it-or-hate-it show, I have to concede that I personally fall into the latter camp. I found the insanity of the players and their stylized, jerking, doll-like movements to stand between me and the fable they were trying to present. While the company is undeniably talented in voice and movement, the use made of their abilities did not succeed in conveying anything to me. Perhaps most disappointing, although each scene began with such powerful visual imagery, the production does not capitalize on the effect - and I was frequently left mouth agape at the look of it, but eyebrows knitted at the reason why.
The Black Rider runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through June 11, 2006. For information, see www.taperahmanson.com.
Center Theatre Group -- Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Director -- presents The Black Rider -- The Casting Of the Magic Bullets, a musical fable. Direction, Set and Lighting by Robert Wilson; Music and Lyrics by Tom Waits; Text by William S. Burroughs; Original Musical Arrangements by Greg Cohen and Tom Waits; Costumes by Frida Parmeggiani; Dramaturgy by Wolfgang Wiens; Associate Director Ann-Christin Rommen.
Photo: by Craig Schwartz