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the black rider: heart intact, brain in two

alex ferguson

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is a theatre artist based in Vancouver. He writes plays, acts, and occasionally directs. He's also a founding member of the performing poetry ensembles, AWOL Love-Vibe and VERBOMOTORHEAD. His writings on theatre have appeared in publications such as Canadian Theatre Review, The Boards, Transmissions.

Rachael Johnston, Kevin Corey, Clinton Carew, The Black Rider Rachael Johnston, Kevin Corey, Clinton Carew, The Black Rider
photo Ian Jackson
“What a delightful sight I see! Dead game piled up all over the house!” This joyous exclamation issues from the mouth of Kathchen, the Royal Huntsman’s daughter (Rachael Johnston). Like everyone else in November Theatre’s production of The Black Rider, Kathchen is smeared over in a grotesque whiteface that accentuates her seemingly huge, blood red, and very plastic, mouth. For about forty-five minutes, a fusillade of the most astonishing vocal pyrotechnics has been erupting from this cannon of muscle and bone. Sounds, words, edgy ballads, grating arias — I haven’t always been sure what she’s been going on about, and to be honest that hasn’t bothered me much. But I now understand how the story is adding up. Kathchen is happy because her fiancé, Wilhelm (Kevin Corey), a lowly accountant from the city, has proven to her hunter father, Bertram (Jon Baggaley), that thanks to his newfound skill with a rifle he’ll be bringing home the bacon. And that means the two lovers can get married.

But there’s an ominous catch: Wilhelm’s success has depended on magic bullets he was given by Peg Leg (Michael Scholar Jr.), a cabaret MC of a devil who, of course, walks with a limp. But the bullets have run out, and now Wilhelm wouldn’t be able to hit his own pasty-white face with a rifle shot if he had his lips wrapped around the barrel. Too bad for Wilhelm, he won’t seal the marriage contract unless he passes the final test of shooting a wooden bird from a tree, and there’s fat chance of that happening without another magic bullet. Peg Leg gladly gives him one more, but this one’s going to be less cooperative. As Papa Bertram says, some bullets have their own special targets, “no matter where you aim, that’s where the bullets end up.”

But before I give away the ending and the anticipated heartbreak, let me assure you that you’ll leave the theatre with your heart in one piece, but your brain in at least two. The narrative, drawn from a German folk tale and a story by Thomas De Quincey, is the basic framework for an evening’s journey into the strange predilections of the show’s original creators, William S. Burroughs, Robert Wilson and Tom Waits. That might give you an indication of what you’re in for. But then again maybe not. While Black Rider draws on 1920s German Expressionism, cabaret, circus, vaudeville, burlesque, and a host of 19th and early 20th century theatrical traditions, it doesn’t try to boil them down into a cohesive whole. Both musically, and in the song lyrics and monologues, it ranges over these traditions and more, and that’s the source of much of the show’s inexplicable delight. It’s unclassifiable.

The most consistent elements are the visual and the physical. The stage is mostly bare black, backed by three columns of intensely red saturated fabric that hang from ceiling to floor. The centre column features a red door at floor level. At centre stage is a painted red circle pierced by a triangle of light from above. At the start, Old Uncle (Mackenzie Gray), a large, intimidating bald man in a trench coat, plants himself downstage centre and, through a bullhorn, barks out a freak-show catalogue that includes acts like “the man born without a body.” Through the door comes Peg Leg, in a shirtless tux and with raccoon eyes shaped like a sun visor — he walks a bit like a wind-up tin toy. Peg Leg entices us with promises to use our skulls as soup bowls before the night is done. I felt I was in good hands with Peg Leg, even if his hands were covered in snake oil. He is soon joined by four laughing, drooling, spitting clowns. What’s really disturbing is that they seem insanely delighted to meet us. All six performers have developed a grotesque physicality, and their vocal styles range from lounge to opera to a damn good evocation of Tom Waits himself by Gray. Choreographer Marie Nychka has the cast mostly moving in right angles across the stage for the duration, with the notable exception of the acrobatic Wilhelm who explodes in every direction — despite the irony of being the most manipulated character in the story.

The overall effect is of a gigantic puppet theatre in which the marionettes have not only taken off their clothes, they’ve then taken off their skin to reveal inner selves that are cheaply dressed, leering emanations from Burroughs’ mind. Step right up kiddies! Unfortunately the promise of danger is undercut during the first half of the show, which is mostly a meandering romp that struggles to be weird and accessible at the same time.

About half way through though, there’s a shift. It comes in the form of a vocal duet between Old Uncle and Young Kuno (also played by Johnston), a demented oversized kid, apparently scolding us in gibberish; Old Uncle looms over her as a kind of puppetmaster. Until this point most of the songs and monologues have been coming at us fast and hard. Here, Young Kuno begins to open up space for the spectator. The pace slackens a little. As Kuno, Johnston seems strangely vulnerable for the first time. And Old Uncle seems to genuinely want something from her, although that may be her very soul. It’s startling when the gibberish duet resolves forcefully into comprehensible English, although I can’t for the life of me remember what they sang — just how it felt. In a later scene, in which Kathchen tries on her wedding dress for the first time, Johnston pulls back on the physical and vocal extremes and speaks to us rather simply, which is a relief while it lasts.

But it’s Mackenzie Gray as Old Uncle who, time and again, makes me snap to attention. He has a remarkable ability to stand and deliver. Even through the Waits growl, his textual work is lucid and deft. He also moves less than everyone else, and in doing so, takes full command of the theatre. When he breaks out of that constraint, it’s a truly violent thing to watch.

In this second half of the show we’re are allowed to feel a genuine sense of uneasiness about what we have entered into. The earlier dispersion of energy seems to focus. It’s hard to say why it’s taken this long. Certainly the show seems to have lost a bit of definition since the first time I saw it at The Waterfront Theatre two years ago. This may be partly due to the open shape of the Arts Club stage. There’s too much unused negative space between the actors; they seem to be taking an extra step when they should already be at their destination. I wanted to shrink the playing area a bit, pull everything to the front of the stage, give it more of the cabaret setting I think is its natural home. In fact, this show should really be seen in a club. We should be drinking our faces off and getting high, so that Johnston’s malleable red mouth can grow to nightmare proportions and properly haunt our dreams, so that the evil fairy tale clowns can work themselves into our psyche and re-emerge in horror stories parents tell to frighten their children. The first half of the show feels a bit like William Burroughs ‘lite’ — the danger is faux, and the perversity feels feigned.

But to give this production its well-deserved due: as I’ve been saying, at mid point a little more space is allowed to creep into the work. The possibility of contacting something truly eerie and deliciously perverse is hinted at. And there are some show-stopping numbers. Gray, now as Georg Schmid, performs in a ritualistic circle of antlers. He holds a sword like an agent of suicide and convulsively sings the hard luck story of another poor soul who made a bad deal with the devil. He also performs a stunning multi-voiced monologue that blends drug craving with gun-culture addiction, while simultaneously deconstructing the classic Hollywood story arc. And Wilhelm, just prior to his exit to hell, sings a honky-tonk swan song to his old pals and alma mater, peppered with words of advice his dad once gave him: nothing can cheer you up like “a campfire and a can of beans.”

The superb Devil’s Rubato Band (Corrine Kessel, Dale Ladouceur and Jeff Unger), which has kept the madness afloat for almost two hours, accompanies Peg Leg for a farewell torch song, beautifully rendered by Scholar. But as he exits through his red door to the underworld, I can’t help feeling a little cheated: he said he was going to use my skull as a soup bowl, but every hair on my head is still in place. I thought dead game was going to be piled up all over the theatre. Where’s the stink of rotting meat and carrion birds? And please don’t take Kathchen’s evil mouth away yet; I haven’t been fully sullied by it. Other spectators, however, seem sufficiently titillated as they rise to their feet to give November Theatre an ovation.

November Theatre, The Black Rider, The Casting of the Magic Bullets, by Tom Waits, William S Burroughs, Robert Wilson, songs Tom Waits, text William S Burroughs, director Ron Jenkins, performers Mackenzie Gray, Michael Scholar Jnr, Jon Baggaley, Colleen Winton, Rachael Johnston, Kevin Corey, Corinne Kessel, The Devil's Rubato Band, musical director Corinne Kessel, choreographer Maria Nychka, lighting Michael Kruse, properties designer Marissa Kochanski; Arts Club Granville Island Stage, Jan 16-Feb 9; PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts, Jan 16 - Feb 3

Alex Lazaridis Ferguson is a theatre artist based in Vancouver. He writes plays, acts, and occasionally directs. He's also a founding member of the performing poetry ensembles, AWOL Love-Vibe and VERBOMOTORHEAD. His writings on theatre have appeared in publications such as Canadian Theatre Review, The Boards, Transmissions.

RealTime issue #0 pg.

© Alex Ferguson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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