The Black Rider: A Fairy Tale for Adults With Music by Tom Waits
By Emily Wilson
Mark Jackson, the director of “The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets” at Shotgun Players, doesn’t believe in the devil or his power over us – he thinks we created the devil to provide excuses for our own weaknesses. So a deal with the devil- as the one at the heart of this play– is giving up some of our principles to get to our dreams quicker. “It’s a metaphor for deals we make with ourselves that compromise our integrity to meet our desires,” he said. “Wilhelm is in love, and rather than being true to himself, he tries to be something he’s not, and the results are bad.”
“The Black Rider” was created by avant-garde director Robert Wilson with lyrics and music by Tom Waits
Yep. “The Black Rider” was created by avant-garde director Robert Wilson with lyrics and music by Tom Waits. William Burroughs, who accidentally shot his wife in 1951 during a drunken game of “William Tell,” wrote the text using an old German fairy tale about Wilhelm, a clerk, who’s in love with Käthchen (Noelle Viñas). Her father, a forester won’t let her marry a man who can’t shoot. So Wilhelm makes a deal with a character named Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka)– never a good idea.
Jackson, who did another Waits- Wilson production in 2012, “Woyzeck,” at Shotgun with musical director David Möschler, enjoys spending time with Waits’ lyrics and Burroughs’ words, which he says are never wasted. Also, Jackson likes fairy tales. He read psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s book on the subject, The Uses of Enchantment, and appreciated what it says about how fairy tales allow children to practice having scary emotions in a safe environment.
“This is a fairy tale for adults, and it’s potent,” Jackson said. “I quite like that, and I’m very interested in the way the script looks at the patriarchal system with Käthchen having all these nightmares about getting married.”
In the play, Wilhelm is played by Grace Ng and El Beh plays the macho character of Robert, who also wants to marry Käthchen. Jackson says he asked the actors to not tell him if they were playing the character as a he, a she or a they. He wanted to honor Wilson’s principles, who said he never told an actor or an audience what to feel. Jackson admits this can be unnerving, and he thinks the play has the fragmented quality of a dream, with Waits’ lyrics also being in fragments.
The play has a lot of physicality and Jackson says he worked with the cast members on their characters, using their abilities.
“Rotimi created all of his work himself, and sometimes I would tell him, ‘Make this a little bigger,’” Jackson said. “I gave Noelle hopscotch to play and just said hop twice and turn once and end in that corner. Grace isn’t a dancer, but she’s obviously an acrobat. With the dance with a gun, we watched some old Gene Kelly routines and I said, ‘See how you might do that in your own way.’”
Jackson says he was lucky in his cast and mentions how moving it is when Agbabiaka sings “The Last Rose of Summer” at the end of the play.
“It’s an almost cliché end of evening song some crooner would do,” he said. “But Rotimi does it with a kind of sadness. You know, maybe the devil wishes he had a different job.”
Jackson hopes the play will trigger people’s imaginations. In a talkback after the play, he said one man talked about how he surrendered to the non-linear nature of the story. “He said it was sort of a fluid river of images, and he let them wash over him,” Jackson said. “It’s sort of like a dream again where you are left with a feeling. There’s this feeling of foreboding that the system is not right.”