Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets"

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets
William S. Burroughs (Book); Tom Waits (Music & Lyrics)

The Cast of Black Rider
What kind of play will be penned by a writer who, as a young man, shoots and kills his wife while playing with her a drinking game of “William Tell”? Imagine his then discovering an old German folktale where an unsuccessful suitor makes a deal with the devil to win his bride, only to shoot her with a magic bullet that is under the devil’s spell.  The resulting play by William S. Burroughs (with music and lyrics by cult-favorite Tom Waits) that premiered in Hamburg, Germany in 1990 – Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets – can be described in a wide range of words: cartoonish, bizarre, freaky, spooky, intriguing, confusing, disturbing.  And while audiences may at times be scratching their heads to ascertain the why’s and wherefores of the staging and the story, the current production at Shotgun Players is certainly packing them in every night, with December pre-sold-out audiences already leading to a two-week extension in January; and it is still only late November!

The tale of a love- and/or knowledge-seeking man making a sure-to-doom bargain with the devil appears in many cultures and in many forms of literature and opera.  In this version, a young clerk named Wilhelm  – “a man of pen and ink” – finds himself in love with Kätchen (and she with him).  However, he lacks the one necessary skill her father most admires and demands of any potential husband:  The ability to shoot and kill yonder dove in the high tree branches.  Desperate to win her hand at any cost, Wilhelm is offered a deal he cannot refuse by a suddenly appearing devil (in this case, a mixed-gender character named Pegleg often calling into mind the MC of Cabaret).  Wilhelm receives six magic bullets destined to hit anything he desires, with one last one reserved by Pegleg to hit the target he chooses.  And like all the devil-bargainers of the past, of course Wilhelm jumps at the offer and the sure route to win his bride’s hand, all the time never contemplating the hell he will unleash on his and others’ lives.

Mark Jackson directs in a highly stylized, often over-done mode that borders between what one might see in an animated film and what one could expect from a B-rated horror movie.  Monologue poems are given robotic, spastic, or full-body trance-like movements to accompany a character’s words.  Various, odd persona come and go with a flow eerie and mysterious as the story unfolds in nothing resembling a straightforward manner.  The songs of Tom Waits pepper the action -- often with haunting, foreboding messages and tones, but also with occasionally beautiful strains that come close to being hummable upon departing (“In the Morning”).

The drama is set within the context of the devil’s sideshow carnival (not unlike the settings of Sondheim’s Assassins or Russell/Krieger’s Side Show). The colorfully fun background set by Sean Riley with its pictures of sundry carnival freaks (and the sign “101% true”) is bordered on both sides by wonderfully scary trees right out of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  Props by Devon LaBelle range from a regularly appearing coffin (often chauffeuring Pegleg inside it) to a wide range of funny but realistic dead game that were shot by Wilhelm as the newly skilled hunter.  The lighting of Allen Willner is both tongue-in-cheek and threatening as lit bullets make their way toward possible targets.  Matt Stines gets fully into the act of producing this magical fable with a sound design that at times echoes, screams, whispers, and thunders in all the right places.  All in all, the Creative Team excels to ensure the combined vision of the playwright and director comes to full life.

A major star of the production is the five-piece band hovering above the stage in full view and under the direction of David Möscheler.  Over twenty different instruments from bassoon to ocarina to toy drum set, pressure cap, and filing cabinet become the symphony of sounds and sound effects.  A good portion of the ever-shifting moods and many of the spine-chilling anticipations of what will happen next come from the music of Tom Waits as interpreted and played by this wonderful ensemble.

El Beh
The songs of the one-hour, forty-five-minute production (some sixteen in all) are delivered by this cast with some mixed results but also with a number of notable deliveries.  Outstanding when called upon to sing is the night’s overall star, El Beh, who brings her rich, deep, and haunting voice to numbers like “November.”  Ms. Beh superbly crosses the gender line to play the bearded, muscled hunter extraordinaire (and overall full of himself), Robert, who wants Käthchen as his bride -- something she is determined not to happen.

Grave Ng
Also taking on an opposite-sex role in a winning way is Grace Ng as Wilhelm.  Initially, she employs an almost child-like singing voice and boy-like manner as the bookish, non-hunting Wilhelm (as in the duet with Käthchen of “The Briar and the Rose”).  Her character matures as he moves toward his deal with the devil, both in voice but also in wide-eyed determination and eventual horror, with Ms. Ng. making some of the best use of her glasses-encased eyes as an acting asset that I have seen all year on any stage. 

Noelle Viñas & Grace Ng
Wilhelm’s love target, Käthchen, is dressed in her plaid skirt and matching sweater like an All-American school girl by designer Christine Cook (by far the most conventional of Ms. Cook’s wild, wooly, and totally fun costumes for all the other characters).  As Käthchen, Noelle Viñas takes a while to warm into the part both in vocals and character.  But as the musical progresses, she begins to hit every mark bulls-eye, including a body rolling across the stage while singing “Chase the Clouds Away” and a delightfully seductive “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” where Käthchen transforms for a moment into a nightclub singer, enticing audience members (all women, by the way) with her tempting promise of love.

Rotimi Agbablaka
Outlandishly hobbling about in one high-heeled boot of red and one black boot covered in sparkles, the gender-non-specific Pegleg, as played by Rotimi Agbabiaka is both hilarious and diabolical.  He is also often our guide to the story’s background narrative.  While sometimes not quite hitting the mark note-wise, his cowboy interpretation of “Just the Right Bullets” tempts in just the right ways the desperate Wilhelm.

Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth Carter as Käthchen’s mother, Anne; Steven Hess in several roles including her father and grandfather; and Kevin Clarke as a curious character “Old Uncle/Devil” who fills in as sideshow hawker with a loud horn.

What is clear from both the script of Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets and this director’s interpretation in the Shotgun Players production is that the devil we need most to fear is not the one we may meet someday, but the one we carry around inside us all the time.  In a world today where a certain leader spends much of his Tweeting time railing about all the devils he sees around him and us, William S. Burroughs seems to be warning us that we each are the main source of our potential undoing and that our doom or redemption is totally in our own control.

Rating: 4 E

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets continues in an extended run through January 14, 2017 on the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Cheshire Isaacs.

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