New York

Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider, 1990, is a delirious journey through a vivid theatrical landscape dotted with the signposts of vaudeville, cabaret, circus, and opera. A rousing and even bombastic overture—of horns and electric piano, drums and found pipes—sets the stage for an evening of splendid artifice. In the opening scene we watch as a larger than man-size black box rises slowly from its horizontal coffinlike position on the floor, to an imposing vertical one. (Is this becoming Wilson’s signature motif which first appeared in his earlier work Einstein on the Beach, 1976?) Like so many iridescent scarves from a magician’s hat, a cast of 11 actors is pulled out one at a time from the black box by Pegleg (Dominique Horwitz), an unctuous master of ceremonies. White-faced with a gash of red mouth and darkened eye sockets, glistening black hair, and a train of spiked extensions that descend to the dragging tails of his evening jacket, he moves with a rhythmically sexy limp to center stage. Knees pinched together, the toes of his high heels kissing, he leads the chorus singing through his nose: “Come along with the Black Rider/We’ll have a gay old time.” That the singers’ melody is a hybrid of musical themes—part Flinstones, part Cabaret, part Threepenny Opera—is not beside the point. Their emphatic familiarity is utterly seductive and we float willingly from our seats into Wilson’s unbelievable imagination.

The text that we bump up against, and that jostles and jiggles the actors with their deadpan painted faces, wide eyes and splayed fingers, held, marionettelike, at or above shoulder level, is pure, uncut William Burroughs. Based loosely on the German folk tale that inspired Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera Der Freischütz (The free-shooter)—the story of a simple clerk, Wilhelm, who must learn how to shoot (he doesn’t want to) in order to marry his sweetheart Kätchen and who makes a pact with the Devil toward that end—it is given a sardonic twist by Burroughs who compares the magic bullet in the original German fable to heroin. Like most operas however, the narrative merely provides a flimsy line upon which to hang overscaled and stylized theatrical devices that the extraordinary Thalia Theater company executes with manic precision. Meanwhile Tom Waits’ throatily sung music—with its lyrics of absurd death and profane love—swoops along with the text, coaxing tenderness from its freakish impulses. It is entirely consistent with the real focus of the work—an extended essay on the popular genres of cabaret, vaudeville, and mime, from Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin to Charlie Chaplin’s Hollywood.

Wilson’s painted theater is supremely elegant. Gashes of Expressionistic scenery project us into the midst of something resembling Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet, 1919, and onto angled beds that have the dizzying flourishes of Czech Cubist furniture. His fragile illusionary architecture, layered with diffused and neon lights, and punctuated by costumes that extend from the actors’ bodies like papier-mâché skirts over wire frames, is a superb container for their bold sculptural presence. Bustled and waistcoated in purples, blues, grays, blacks, and reds—a palette of 19th-century high drama—each actor, toward the end, wears white; drained of color these ghosts of theaters past file singly back into the black box. Only Pegleg remains to eulogize the art of theater in a final song about his rose garden.

RoseLee Goldberg