Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles

Black Rider

Also see Sharon's review of Li'l Abner

Mary Margaret O'Hara and Matt McGrath
It's bizarre. Stark, artistic, arresting. Off-putting, discomfiting, macabre. Edgy, avant-garde ... and did I mention bizarre?

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.

Nigel Richards, Dean Robinson and Richard Strange
The score by Tom Waits is sometimes atonal and frequently haunting. The book by William S. Burroughs occasionally ventures into rhyme, and is sometimes poetic and philosophical. But the hand that leaves the greatest imprint on The Black Rider is that of Robert Wilson, who is credited with the show's direction, set and lighting design. Wilson works in a palette of solid colors - with emphasis on black and red. Faces are covered in white make-up and lighting is striking and unforgiving. Scene after scene begins with a jaw-dropping tableau - such as when the ground is littered with the bloody bodies of the animals Wilhelm shot with the magic bullets - which seems designed to trigger an emotional response.

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

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.

Wilhelm's Old Uncle/Duke - John Vickery
Pegleg - Vance Avery
Attendant/Warden/Bird/Wilhelm's Double/Ghost - Monika Tahal
Bridesmaid/Pegleg Double/Ghost - Gabriella Santinelli
Robert/Man on Stage/Georg Schmid - Nigel Richards
Kuno - Richard Strange
Bird/Messenger/Ghost - Sona Cervena
Young Kuno/Warden/Bird/Ghost - Jake Thornton
Anne - Joan Mankin
Kathchen - Mary Margaret O'Hara
Wilhelm - Matt McGrath
Bertram - Dean Robinson

Photo: by Craig Schwartz

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Sharon Perlmutter

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