The Devil, incarnated in The Black Rider as Pegleg (Rotimi Agbabiaka), immediately and matter-of-factly declares his intentions. In the first song he sings, “Lay down in the web of the black spider / I’ll drink your blood like wine.” He politely continues, “May I use your skull for a bowl?” This doesn’t sound like a comedy, even if you’re reading Tom Waits’ lyrics when they’re divorced from his disquieting music. It isn’t even black comedy. It’s been made for an audience of ravens and vultures who are laughing atop the gallows after the last hangman has hanged himself because everyone else is dead. This musical fable could only be categorized as a comedy if the earth were scorched.
But under Mark Jackson’s direction, the Shotgun Players’ revival makes a clean break from this interpretation, favoring an off-putting literalism that often descends into glibness or burlesque. The original conception of The Black Rider belonged as much to Robert Wilson, the theater director, as it did to William S. Burroughs’ book and Waits’ score. His lighting and set design, inspired by German Expressionism, abstracted the sense of place and transformed it into a heightened state of mind. Here, ideas compete and defeat each other in a staged effort that leans heavily on easy sarcasm.
The backdrop is painted with slogans and images that suggest we’re about to enter a dark carnival. It’s the first miscalculation that opens the door for the next. A barker appears wearing bright orange glasses and a matching jumpsuit. As all of the characters are introduced, their costumes code them in clownish colors, as if they’re buffoons. The most egregiously unfortunate of the bunch is Pegleg’s. His arms are draped in gold ruffles, his torso in purple sequins, and his artificial leg is a long red leather, high-heeled kinky boot. This is the devil as imagined by Carmen Miranda. It would be impossible to find him menacing if it weren’t for Agbabiaka’s understanding of the songs, his commitment to the character and his outsized acting and singing talents. You want to pay attention to his performance, not to the distracting ruffles.The Black Rider is based on a German folktale, later an opera, called Der Freischütz. Translated as The Hunter or The Marksman, it’s the story of a courtship gone bleak. Wilhelm (Grace Ng) and Kätchen (Noelle Viñas) can’t marry without her father’s permission. He’s a huntsman and Wilhelm is not. In 19th century Germany, his inability to shoot animals in cold blood disqualifies him as a suitor. Instead of casting his romantic hopes elsewhere, Wilhelm encounters Pegleg in the forest and makes a deal with him.
Trees line both sides of the stage while the actors slink about in their long shadows, which means we’re in a carnival and a forest. The backdrop, plus these tree-sized trees, hem the actors in physically. This sense of confinement also limits the way they’ve imagined the inner lives of their characters. Wilson once described The Black Rider as “expressionistic, quick and colorful, and highly exaggerated.” Nothing in this description indicates a light entertainment. Ng and Viñas sing a lovely ballad, “The Briar and the Rose,” surrounded by portents of doom. Their voices blend together well as performers but they’re not that believable as star-crossed lovers (and not because both are women).Later, Ng has the finest moment of the evening when she sings “Lucky Day” with a heretofore unseen and chilling intensity. Until that point she’s been directed to externalize her emotions through mawkish, wide-eyed expressions. El Beh, sporting a silly mustache, and Kevin Clarke as the bespectacled barker are also guilty of being directed as if they’re starring in an opera buffa with much mugging to each other and the audience. Without having facial paroxysms, Ng, like Agbabiaka and Viñas’ rendition of “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” eventually mines something profound inside herself that communicates madness. She strips off the artifice of performing it. At last, at the finale, she makes us understand what it feels like to be damned. When the actors can’t go to such emotional extremities, The Black Rider is only capable of issuing bluffs and empty threats.
The Black Rider, through Dec. 31, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org/online/blackrider