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the black rider: the carnival from hell

andrew templeton

Andrew Templeton is Vancouver-based writer and playwright who's had plays produced in Vancouver and London.

The Black Rider The Black Rider
photo Ian Jackson
There is an old vaudeville theatre in Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside. It’s been closed for years. For some reason, The Black Rider put me in mind of the crumbling glory of the Pantages. With its expressionistic tone and sense of rotting decay, November Theatre’s production would be more at home there than in the utilitarian blandness of the Granville Island Stage.

However, it’s not vaudeville but the carnival that is evoked at the top of the show as Old Uncle (Mackenzie Gray) invites us – in the fashion of a sideshow barker – to join the Black Rider. While assuring us of a “gay old time”, he lists the freaks that will be on display for our pleasure. Any fear that we are about to experience a bewildering series of unrelated vignettes is soon dispelled as we are caught up in the story of young couple: Wilhelm (Kevin Corey) and Kathchen (Rachel Johnston). The girl’s father, Bertram (Jon Baggaley) forbids their union because Wilhelm, a soft city clerk, is not a hunter, an occupation integral to the history of Bertram’s family.

To win Kathchen and impress Bertram, Wilhelm makes a deal with the devil-like Peg Leg (Michael Scholar Jr), who offers him magic bullets that are guaranteed to never miss their mark, no matter what direction Wilhelm shoots. He quickly bags enough game to impress Bertram but, of course, any deal involving the devil is bound to sour and ultimately Wilhelm loses the object of his desires by his own hand. Taken from a German folk tale, this narrative provides the simple but durable structure to house the songs and music of Tom Waits and the heightened, poetical language of William S Burroughs.

No doubt reflecting its production history – The Black Rider was originally mounted as a fringe show – the piece is spare with a firm emphasis on performance and music. A small band of three musicians – playing a variety of instruments – are holed up on one side of an otherwise empty playing space. Thick vertical stripes of deep reds and blues form an effective backdrop upon which images of rifles and trees are projected. To create a carnival-like atmosphere with such a stripped down aesthetic requires ingenious stagecraft. There are some wonderful moments, for example when Wilhelm hides under Katchen’s wedding dress and uses his hands to create grotesque, rather dextrous feet for his bride-to-be. Other moments – a flapping kite for a bird – are less effective.

The six actors are fully committed to an expressionistic approach that includes white face, highly stylized movement, clowning and heightened vocalizations. With the aid of just a few props, they successfully create a hallucinatory, drug-like world. Such a performance style naturally has an alienating quality to it that shuts an audience out from emotional engagement with the characters. While this reinforces the flatness of the folk tale narrative, it can make the work difficult to take for stretches and I did find myself longing for pauses from the shrieking and clockwork movements.

Still, without losing any commitment to the expressionistic aesthetic there are some surprisingly touching moments, particularly between Wilhelm and Kathchen when they sing their duet, The Briar and the Rose. In the end, Corey’s Wilhelm provides the spine of the piece. With his deft use of physical humour, Corey reminded me of Chaplin with the same sense of a clown lost in a bewildering world. Johnston provides a strong, physical counterpoint to Corey. She is striking in both red dress and wedding gown, creating the weird doll-like creature of his desire.

Playing the devil, Scholar is allowed a little more freedom in his movements. There is a sultriness to his character, a physical prowess that the limp of his peg-leg surprisingly accentuates. The character, and Scholar’s performance, reminded me of the MC from Cabaret. Peg Leg isn’t the host of the evening – although he does close the night cabaret-style. Instead Old Uncle acts as our guide for most of the night. While Gray gives a powerful performance, I was less sure of the choice to mimic Tom Waits' distinctive, husky singing voice. I found this affectation rather distracting, taking me out of the world of the piece.

The story of the magic bullets is meant to evoke the dark other-world of addiction. Ironically the stage is often flooded with light – perhaps to evoke the footlights of the 19th century. Instead of a rundown theatre, the flat, bright lighting put me in mind rather of a school auditorium. But then so does the Granville Island Theatre generally. I longed for more darkness, more shadows, more decay. I wanted to be closer to the performers somehow, pushed right up against the stage.

There is a dedicated group in Vancouver trying to save the Pantages Theatre. If they succeed, I hope they will consider this show for the re-opened venue. The Pantages languishes in a dark, decaying part of our city; a place where the Black Rider would feel at home.

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

Andrew Templeton is Vancouver-based writer and playwright who's had plays produced in Vancouver and London.

RealTime issue #0 pg.

© Andrew Templeton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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