Come on in… Take off your skin…
FOR SOME REASON THE OFFICIAL SITE WENT DOWN, SO ALL THE IMAGES AND SUCH ARE GONE. OH WELL.Just got home from seeing The Black Rider at the Ahamnson Theater. For those not in the know, The Black Rider is the musical written by Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs and brought to the stage by Robert Wilson. The show was originally produced about a decade ago, and this is a revival, with Wilson still at the head.It's this Faustian folk tale done Brecht style with a heaping helping of Waitsian charm and Burroughs-y insanity (or, as I like to call it Burroughsanity) and a Murnau aesthetic The Waits Album that serves for most as their only vision of the piece is one of his classic discs, and it's a must own for fans of the later period Waits (I'd say it's second only to Bone Machine).
So, the show. Hm. It's good. It's very good. (Watch my BFA in theater go now!) The mis-en-scene is positively breath-taking. The sheer degree of stagecraft that went into making the whole thing work, is just obscenely impressive. The scene transitions happen without you noticing, the sets morph and grow, shrinking into nothing, growing from back drops, and lighting effects become three dimensional objects. It's positively transcendent.
The performers... well... in that Brechtian tradition, what the actors are doing is so stilted and stylized that very little of it is acting, so much as it is an elaborate combination of dance and vocalization. Even a quick walk across the stage is becomes an epic event. It's pretty amazing. That aside, one of the strangest biproducts of the show being written by Waits is a lot of the cast attempts to do a Waits impression especially on some of the more 'trademarked' songs. Fact is, there's only one Tom, and nobody else can even come close.
The music is absolutely the highlight. The performance is epic, I'd say the band is better than Tom's actual touring band (at least, the band he toured with on Mule Variations, which is the last time I saw him.) The vibrancy and precision of what they do is just... wow. The vocal side of things, aside from the Tom apeing mentioned above, is also pretty damn great. Lots of interesting choices and arrangements. Really, really amazing stuff.
Then, we get to the show itself. Here's the thing. There's a big flaw in the shape and structure of the piece, in part due to a strangely timed intermission (it falls nearly 2 hours into a 2 hour and 45 minute show) leaving the final act feeling very small and disconnected to the rest of the plot. In fact, when the curtain call started, it took about 4 or 5 actors before the audience figured out it was a curtain call. At the end of the day, it fails in a lot of the ways that I think a lot of Burroughs work fails. 2/3rds of the way through the plot falls by the wayside, and it becomes a bit self-indulgent. Which is a shame, because the actual set pieces are really breath-taking. Really, really breath-taking. For me, though, the combination of the extremely stylized series of vignettes that make up the final 1/3rd, and the forward story momentum of the first chunk just does not mesh. The thing is, that at the end of the day, the plot is identical to that of Brigadoon or Oklahoma, just with a darker take. And part of what makes those shows (while somewhat atrocious in their own ways) successful is the feeling of completion. I don't think the show accomplishes that. All in all, a truely unique piece of theater, and the fact that it not only got put on at one of the biggest theaters in LA, and had a pretty decent size audience is a feat and accomplishment in itself. If you're a fan of Waits, Burroughs, or giant avant garde theatrical art pieces, you'll enjoy it.
At the very least, I know that Sean Maher is jealous as fuck.