Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

Reuben Liversidge

You're in for one hell of a ride – literally.
Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

Image: The cast of  Black Rider. Photograph by Pia Johnson (c). 

'Come on along with the Black Rider' beckon the ghoulish chorus during the opening number of Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs’ operatic fable. If you’re brave enough to accept their invitation you are in for one hell of a ride – literally. You see, our emcee for this philharmonic Faustian folk tale is none other than the Devil himself: or in the case of this new production, ‘herself.’

Cabaret superstar Meow Meow plays the demonic Pegleg in this classic creep-fest about love, sacrifice and addiction all set to the demonic harmonics of Tom Waits thrilling score.

On a scrappy white set, which looks like it was constructed out of old cardboard boxes, Pegleg (played by Meow Meow like Liza Minnelli on Xanax) greets the audience before the ensemble begin to enter the space via various trapdoors hidden around the stage. Each performer is costumed in a distinct colour and their faces are smeared with white make-up (a nod to the director of the original production Robert Wilson). The actors move around the stage like stiff marionettes and their faces are contorted into garish masks of over exaggerated emotion. This heightened theatrical style is maintained throughout the entire performance.

Director Matthew Lutton and his production team create a dark expressionistic pop-up storybook aesthetic that is married perfectly in both the performances and the physical production. Wooden cut-outs of various woodland animals constantly pop out of the set, painted cloth backdrops are flown in and out by the cast and a small stage within the stage is painted in a pop art comic book style. There’s also a lot of mess. The walls of the set bleed, at one point the central tortured protagonist Wihelm (Kanen Breen) drags his bloody body across the floor leaving a messy scarlet trail and he also baths in oily black paint. The set itself seems alive as it sucks up various props, hands protrude out from behind walls and it seems to violently expel performers onto the stage. The technical wizardry on display is bloody impressive.

However, for all the stage magic being thrown at the audience the characters and story remain very basic. At its core Black Rider is a classic morality tale. Based on a German folktale the plot is essentially about a Faustian pact Wilhelm makes with the Devil. In order to impress his betrothed Kathchen (Dimity Shepherd) and become the masculine hunter her family desires, meek accountant Wilhelm is given some magic bullets to help him hit his animal targets. But there’s always a demonic debt to pay and (spoiler alert) his wedding day ends in tragedy.

Burroughs also peppers in themes of drug addiction and domestic violence. These elements are far from subtle; it’s not hard for the audience to substitute the magic bullets with heroin (in fact there is a line in the text about ‘marijuana being a gateway to heroin’) and the play sometimes lapses into clichéd histrionics as it races to the conclusion.

The main drawcard of Black Rider is Waits’ songs and on that front this production does not disappoint. The cast sing the material splendidly, Breen gets extra points for maintaining his gorgeous tenor whilst flailing about the stage and even walking on all fours, and the Victoria Opera Chamber Orchestra are in fine form. Watching the musicians navigate the eclectic material, which ranges from traditional European opera to discordant Weimar cabaret, is exciting and having the orchestra on full display in a well-lit pit at the front of the performance space ensures the music in this production is allowed to shine.

This reviewer started to grow a bit wearisome during the middle of Black Rider; the overwrought performance style and operatic warbling all became a bit too much. It’s hard to sustain such a constant high level of non-naturalism for over ninety minutes without a few lulls in the performance. The simple storyline and archetypal characters don’t help relieve the growing feeling of monotony either. We don’t care about the characters and they have a limited emotional range. But in the end I found myself moved by the sheer inventiveness of the staging, the pervasive gothic creepiness throughout and the superb presentation of this unique score.

Presented by Malthouse Theatre in a co-production with Victoria Opera and Melbourne Festival Black Rider offers stunning visuals and brilliant music, but not much else. It’s a case of scintillating style over substance. This Black Rider is a bit hit-and-miss; much like Wilhelm’s aim with a shotgun.

3 ½ STARS out of 5

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

Music & Lyrics by Tom Waits
Text by William S. Burroughs
Directed by Matthew Lutton
Featuring Kanen Breen, Paul Capsis, Jacqueline Dark, Winston Hillyer, Le Gateau Chocolat, Meow Meow, Richard Piper and Dimity Sheperd
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse
15 September – 8 October
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse
BLACK RIDER – Presented by Malthouse Theatre, Victoria Opera and Melbourne Festival

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.