Burroughs & Waits’ Bargain with the Devil Fascinates
by Kim Waldron
“Adult fairy-tale musical” sounds off-kilter, but what better entertainment for off-kilter times? Imaginative writing, top caliber performances, and rhythmic storytelling guarantee an intriguing evening.
Exquisite grotesque characters inhabit a hilarious, sinister world. Gorgeous devil Pegleg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) limps as he walks on one flat heel black boot and one very spiked heel red boot. Sporting sparkly black pants with red suspenders and no shirt, plus golden feathery ruffled arms, Pegleg looks as beguiling as devils must. Few devils, however, can boast a voice as pleasing as Agbabiaka’s.
“Black Rider” is love story merged into a morality tale. Nebbish clerk Wilhelm (Grace Ng) loves Katchen (Noelle Viñas), but her prosperous father Bertram (Steven Hess) will only accept a great hunter as her suitor. But hyper-masculine Robert (El Beh) fits the parental bill—and their patriarchal family style. Katchen has only her mother, Anne (Elizabeth Carter), on her side, because mom is sympathetic to true love. Humble Wilhelm has only the devil Pegleg, all too willing and able—for a price—to help. A charming but sinister Old Uncle (Kevin Clarke) wanders about as events unfold, offering sound advice.
William S. Burroughs, Tom Waits, and Robert Wilson created “Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets” in 1992, based on an ancient German folk tale about a bargain with the devil. We fear things will not end well.
Their dark, eccentric world fascinates. Pegleg sings: “Come on in … take off your skin, and dance around in your bones.” The actors come awfully close with choreographed walks, lurches, and dances that continuously mesmerize. A woman massaging a man’s head, and the master of the house removing his glasses, both inspire freaky sounds; a deal with the devil at the crossroads ignites an explosion. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
Talented Grace Ng does knockout work as the short, bespectacled clerk Wilhelm, who becomes a champion hunter for love. From opening chorus to bitter end, with Wilhelm afraid, cocksure, or tortured, Ng stays fully committed. Her early contortionist dance convinces me to follow her Wilhelm on any adventure.
El Beh keeps the hunter Robert strikingly compelling as the character moves from appalling macho to sufferer.
Kevin Clarke’s Old Uncle is diabolical: in face, clothing, and demeanor. Even his hair is demonic. Eccentrically attractive yet creepy, he slinks into our minds to stay. If only anyone would heed his words …
Noelle Viñas as true love Katchen yearns, argues, and dances, always with passionate physicality. Her conservative parents seem conventional fairy-tale fodder, as her father Bertram explains in song how he chooses his daughter’s suitor. But then, the august Bertram and his preferred suitor, Robert, engage in a macho greeting ritual, and the convoluted male bravado brings down the house. Mother Anne startles us when she dares to challenge her husband to honor love and respect daughter Katchen’s choice; she startles her husband, too.
I’m glad I sat up high, not just for the great view of lighting feats, but it also put me across from the band in their loft. David Moschler directs a small but mighty group. Their great music, with hazily visible bodies swaying and jerking, entrances.
“Black Rider” probes addiction, patriarchy, and violence. The superb cast challenges our human willingness to sacrifice goodness to satisfy desire. Above all, the evocative, unsettling “Black Rider” offers great art for theater lovers.
Unless semi-nudity or the bizarre offend, I recommend “Black Rider” as an off-beat, glorious marvel.
“Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets,” music & lyrics by Tom Waits, text by William S. Burroughs, directed by Mark Jackson, by Shotgun Players, Berkeley, through Sunday, January 7, 2018. Info: shotgunplayers.org
Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka, El Beh, Elizabeth Carter, Kevin Clarke, Steven Hess, Grace Ng, and Noelle Vinas.