Robert Wilson's
Reviewed by Renate Stendhal


The Bay Area is notoriously starved for shows by Robert Wilson. The internationally celebrated theater inventor has only appeared here once, in 1986, with "The Knee Plays", a small  excerpt from his monumental epic "The CIVIL warS".  The premiere of  "The Black Rider" therefore was a season-opening sensation at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, a co-production with the London Barbican Theater and the Sydney Festival in Australia. This is the first full-length creation by Wilson shown in California. "The Black Rider" – with music by Tom Waits and a text by William S. Burroughs –  was originally created with a German text (in Hamburg, 1992). It toured internationally, including a stop in New York, in 1993. The piece is based on a German folk tale about a Faustian pact with the devil. The new English-language reworking of the play, with Marianne Faithful in a star turn as the devil, will not be shown in New York. The next stop is Australia.

I used to live in Paris where Wilson's creations were always in easy reach. I witnessed the historical moment, in 1971, when he made his first appearance on an international stage with Deafman Glance, at the  Nancy theater festival. The 7-hour  "silent opera"  was a series of exquisitely designed, lit, and directed tableaux vivants and dream-like sequences,  set on a stage filled with beach sand, with people and animals moving in extreme slow motion as if under magical spells  or in strange rituals of the soul. At the center of the blinding sand desert, a beautiful black woman was sitting motionless in a chair, a black falcon on her hand, while a child, a deaf-mute black boy, was revisiting the horrors of childhood trauma, screaming without a voice.

Wilson's following creations, like "A Letter for Queen Victoria" (1974)  and "Einstein on the Beach" (1976, a collaboration with composer Phil Glass), were less visceral and more cerebral. They hailed a  theater revolution that was inspired,  at the same time, by other innovators like Pina Bausch, whose dancers celebrated their violent rituals on a stage filled with dirt, dead leaves, or water; or  by Richard Foreman, who was spinning the threads of surreal energies between the mysterious objects and actors of his plays. This new theater was a theater of the body; it replaced words with motion and music, action with the power of poetic visual images; it was multimedia theater, dance theater, surreal theater, magical theater. It was sometimes called a new form of Wagner's "Gesamtkunstwerk" (total work of art) that integrated the experimental,  repetitive, minimalistic art movements of the time with the sumptuous production style of grand opera.

The Wagnerian length and visual richness of  "Bob" Wilson's stage creations  made them an instant success in Europe, especially Germany, where the necessary funds were readily available to produce them. The European advantage of culture being considered important enough to be funded by tax money, led to the artistic "exile" of  Wilson. It is ironic that Wilson, the most sought-after theater maker of our time (who was born in Waco, Texas, and studied architecture and design in Brooklyn), is relatively unknown in his own country, while doing up to a dozen productions per year of plays, operas, and shows, in Europe and elsewhere in the world. By now, he has been at it for 35 years, unrelentingly. The renewed "Black Rider"  demonstrates his stage wizardry and  perfectionist genius, but also reveals the perhaps unavoidable signs of fatigue.

"The Black Rider" lures the audience with a tale of dark magic. The naive hero, Wilhelm (Matt McGrath), a clerk, is in love with a forester's daughter, Käthchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara), but Käthchen won't get permission to  marry him unless he becomes a hunter – like Robert (Nigel Richards), her father's preferred contender. Hopeless as a marksman, Wilhelm strikes a bargain with the devil. Now he is able to impress the father of the bride with magic bullets that never miss their prey. On his wedding day, however, payment is due: In a shooting contest with his rival, Wilhelm's last bullet kills Käthchen. The tale inspired the romantic opera "Der Freischütz" (The Freeshooter) by Carl Maria von Weber, in 1821, and could have come right out of the Brothers Grimm. Its magic, however,  has been thoroughly deconstructed by Wilson's design. In his collaboration with Burroughs and Waits, Wilson has twisted the tragic, romantic tale  into  a cynical, noisy,  hyperactive parody – a parody presented as an "excercice de style". 

On a backdrop of stark German-expressionist landscapes, Kirchner-style forests and surreal interiors (with the inevitable Wilsonian chairs floating in space), the musical fable jumps from the carny sideshow to commedia dell'arte pantomime, from maudlin English Music Hall to Broadway's sexy Cabaret, from silent movie melodrama to punkish Grand Guignol, from the wooden body language of Hampelmänner (peg dolls) and wind-up Coppelias  to the disjointed hysterics of Punch and Judy marionettes. The list could go on. I felt invited  to the game of finding the hidden duck in the trees: which well-known theater styles are quoted and parodied in this scene, this movement, this image? Such a guessing game can certainly be fun when there is  the scenic virtuosity, the manic production of ideas, the perfect execution and beautifully polished surface of Wilson's work – but it can also remain oddly unengaging, annoyingly arch and superficial.  This time, Wilson's  fireworks left me  indifferent because of their  lack of emotional depth and relevance.

One reason for the thinness of this pastiche is the text. The story  is about a bullet going astray, and Wilson invited  Burroughs to write the text because of a shooting mishap in his own life. In a drunken, drugged-out "Wilhelm Tell" game in 1951,  young Burroughs  had challenged his wife to let him aim at a glass placed on her head. The bullet hit her instead and killed her instantly. References to the incident that catapulted him into becoming a writer, appear throughout  the text together with sub- stories of other stray bullets. Burroughs wrote the libretto  some 40 years later when he was sober and found surprisingly little to say about it. The bullet "has its own wit", he writes. The devil will "drink your blood like wine" or, the shooter's mind is clouded by "mists and fog and murky light, stinking vapor..."  I wondered at times if Burroughs had the "Banality of Evil" on his mind when he wrote such banal lines. There are constant obvious references between the  need for magic bullets and the addiction to drugs. Many rhymed passages are anything but original: "The bullet may have its own will. You never know who it will kill." Certainly ironic playing against expectations plays a big role here, but when, for example,  a circus-stentorian announcer repeatedly trumpets what will happen in the next scene, my association-triggered mind goes, "Oh yeah, hello Mr. Brecht," and yawns. 

The music and songs by maverick Tom Waits fare much better,  adding another stylistic collage to Wilson's own, with consistently original-sounding  quotations from Kurt Weill and German cabaret, English ballads ("The Briar and the Rose"), tongue-in-cheek  pop play-offs, grungy waltzes and funky polkas, burlesque horror music and shrill circus tunes.  His composition is colored by unusual instruments like  an electric saw with its whiny vibrato,  and he is well served by the superb singers/actors, especially Nigel Richards who renders the obsessive madness of hunter Robert in bestial coloratura screams that are bone-chilling and seem to belong to some gutter opera only Waits could have invented. Marianne Faithful's husky, smoky, well-matured voice wraps around his music like the smooth tail of the devil. The friendly blond pop diva is unrecognizable in her black pigtail wig and the garish black Mephisto smile painted on the white mask of her face. Buxom in her exaggeratedly long black or red tailcoats, Faithful has found a slithering sideways body movement that sets her apart. Her androgynous otherness immediately draws the eye to her and makes her devil the central character, the center of gravity in the cacophony of mad-cap action around her.

Every now and then, Wilson's stage wizardry brings back the old magic. There are mesmerizing forest scenes where powerful bird creatures – half-human, half-falcon – confuse the hunters with their gigantic shadow appearances. In the final contest on the wedding day, all the characters (the "village" with several brides) is drawn in slow motion to the shooting. Here the sophisticated choreography pulls the puppet-like figures with their wood-cut faces to their destiny as if they were pulled by the devil's strings. The naive hero is frozen in the eerie light of the scene, taking aim at a white dove in a tree. When the shot falls, the bird rests immobile, time and movement suspended. Then Käthchen shudders and bit by bit disappears, collapsing  into her white paper wedding dress. It's a scene that gives the spectator time and space and enough scenic quiet  to do what Wilson has always wanted his audience to do: " to listen to the images." And, I would add, to feel something. Most of the other tableaux are too verbose and frantic to allow one to listen to anything but the technique of Wilson's  stage design, or to feel anything but admiration for the brilliant surface act. One other stand-out scene ironically makes the irony of parody work.  Wilhelm goes insane after killing his bride. While he falls apart, his shirt falls off him – a pop rhythm begins, his half-naked body twitches, stretches and preens like a boy group singer  in a crazed narcissistic display act. Then he keels over and  conveniently rolls into a microphone on the floor so that his sobs become a pop song ("Lucky Day"). The obvious double-take is so ambiguously executed and McGrath so striking as the innocent boy idol that the despair under his "keep smiling" face affected me as one of the rare moving moments of the play.

The general excitement about "The Black Rider" in San Francisco is understandable; theater of this inventive quality is a rarity in the Bay Area. Audiences  have few occasions to draw comparisons between the work of other major theater re-creators – Pina Bausch, Robert LePage, The Wooster Group, Peter Brook, or the British Théatre de Complicité, to name a few. Viewers who have seen the fairly recent "Shockheaded Peter" by the latter company may remember the outrageous creative freshness of this "Junk opera". There were many similar elements, the parody of puppet theater, the mix of styles and use of multimedia, live musicians, and  the take-off from a German text –  in this case the infamous children's picture book about punishment for bad behavior, "Struwwelpeter". To me, the postmodern pastiche of  "The Black Rider" seemed stale by comparison with the emotional punch "Shockheaded Peter" delivered. That troupe of fringe artists deserved what Susan Sontag said about Wilson's debut in France when she spoke about  "a shock of recognition."  In "The Black Rider" there is a great deal of recognition, but no shock.  As a member of the audience in San Francisco, I felt I was in  another fairytale, this one by Hans Christian Anderson, where a child shouts, "But the emperor is naked!" while everyone applauds. 

photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Hamburg

©2004 Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal is a Lambda award-winning writer,
translator, counselor and writing coach.


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