What are the deals we all make with the devil and what will they cost us? It sounds strange to ask this question out loud but give it some thought. Examine the pathways and routines of your daily life. What are the bargains we strike, never thinking about when the bill will come? For some it’s the bottle. We drink and then construct huge fortresses of reasons why. We gamble and then rearrange the rest of our lives to meet our debuts. Some deals are emotional. A man beats his wife and in the aftermath they whisper lovingly how this will be the last time. A deal with the devil doesn’t necessarily involve a horned man with goatee, tail and a pitchfork. The devil, or evil, is implicit in every dark choice we make. At the heart of all of these dealings is a sense of borrowed time. There’s no possible sustainability to these scenarios. As William S. Burroughs has made clear in his writings on addiction, there exists a, “Geometry of Need”. The more one “does” of whatever the substance, emotion or action, the more one needs to do. This exponential relationship has no happy ending. The costs are eventually extracted and won’t be denied. These musings form the underlying center of the Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs musical, “The Black Rider”.
The Black Rider is not for the feint of heart. It is, simply put, a scouring. You leave the theatre almost at a loss for words to address the spectacle you’ve just witnessed. Elements of Kabuki, Balinese theatre, carnival sideshows and German Expressionism swirl, grimace and float into a singular vision of choices and consequences. The story follows the misfortunes of Wilhelm as he seeks to marry Kathchen, the daughter of a forest dwelling hunter. His occupation as a clerk is deemed unworthy and he sets about winning the approval of Kathchen’s father by proving himself with a gun. After a miserable failure, he tries again. This time he meets Pegleg (the devil) and strikes a bargain that unfolds for the rest of the play.
Musically, we are treated to a fine sampling of some of Tom Waits’ familiar territory. It’s a seductive mix of decadent German Jazz and old world balladry. The band (The Magic Bullets) playing at the Ahmanson Theatre was amazing. Their skill and timing worked so well as to make the music become an unseen character, one integral to the on-stage action. Visually the play is both delightful and hypnotic. A good comparison are the sets and scenery used in such classic expressionist cinema as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu”. At times it felt as though those films had come to life and were now playing themselves out in full color on the stage. Color and lighting are also key elements in telling the tale. Simple backdrops and small spotlights shift between vivid reds, blues and greens highlighting and commenting on the various scenes. The actor’s makeup and costumes go back once again to German Expressionism for inspiration. The actor’s frozen and contorted expressions combined with whole body gestures bring to mind both Kabuki and Balinese theatre. As in both of those styles of performance, actors freeze into poses serving as signifiers of an archetype or mental state. The actor’s moves are accented by wonderful clanking percussion and sound effects. The colors, costumes, sounds and staging all combine to great effect. It was an honor to sit for a couple of hours and witness this play.
One of the many functions of art is to pose questions. Some art also provides answers or examples. The Black Rider poses many questions; what will be the cost of this choice? How can we live with the outcomes of our actions? Why do we often choose the easy way out? The play asks many questions and while providing an example of one outcome, leaves us to find our own answers. The devil turns out to be sympathetic, even likable. The hero shows his true cowardly nature. It turns out that the black and white certainties of life are overshadowed by the grey area and the ambiguous.
Once again, ‘The Black Rider” is not for the feint of heart. At the performance I witnessed a handful of the sold-out crowd got up and left. I caught a few of their bewildered and disapproving scowls as they walked down the aisles towards the exits. I suppose that when confronted with the macabre and Grand Guignol tableau playing itself out in front of them, they recoiled. This play strikes awfully close to home. While it might not be for the feint of heart I would put forth that no meaningful art is.