i think i'll have the veal
I am far from knowing just what I thought of The Black Rider. As a fan who has owned the Tom Waits album version for years, I must grouchily insist that a Tom Waits song is no such thing without Tom Waits singing it. Sometimes the actors seemed like they were attempting to channel Tom Waits, with mixed results; more often they elected to play it safe and go another route. Somehow I was expecting the show to have a fairly straightforward plot that would support the familiar songs and synthesize them into a larger whole, but I had forgotten that William Burroughs and Robert Wilson (of Einstein on the Beach, etc.) were involved here. Avant your garde!
For the first fifteen minutes I had grave doubts; after that I started to get into it. In the white face paint and stylized acting and emphasis on motion over words I saw shades of kabuki, but J. more sensibly placed it in the realm of German expressionist theater, about which I know nothing. The whole German element of the show (Faustian folklore, occasional lines auf Deutsch, which no, I didn't understand) is one of many puzzles I haven't really glossed. As far as overall theme, the Burroughs stamp is almost parodically clearit's about addiction, and about accidentally shooting your wife. The magic-bullet-as-drug extended metaphor worked pretty well, though at one point the protaginst shouts something to the effect of "I'm reaching for the magic bullets like a junkie reaching for skag!" which was unnecessary; we'd already picked up that much, and in any case Burroughs was sharp enough to understand that the "algebra of need" (his phrase) applies to areas beyond the pharmacologicaljunkies are just especially naked examples. The horrible denouement is clear from the beginning, I think, even if you hadn't gotten the story years ago from the album liner notes. It's not about dramatic tension in the sense that you wonder what's going to happen; it's about seeing just how fate will be enacted.
In a lot of places it was enacted damn well. The minutely detailed use of body movement synchronized to music was particularly effective; characters tiptoe around in time with percussion beats or pizzicato strings, like a sinister mirror of those old Disney shorts. Marianne Faithfull as the devil actually reminded me of Bono during the later legs of Zoo TV, when he would do encores as Mr. MacPhisto. Intentional or not, it was an effective set of mannerisms and made for a restrained and elegant devil. Again, not what I had expected from listening to Tom Waits, but I certainly must credit her with putting her stamp on it. The lighting and set design were all thoroughly disorienting and quite beautiful in a harsh, schematic way. Basically, it was episodically brilliant. I don't know that the episodes cohered into anything larger, but it was a spectacle worth seeing.