Thursday, May 04, 2006

take off your skin and dance around in your bones

As if the Festival of Books weren't enough, I also had the opportunity to see a theater production for which I've been lusting for a decade: the Tom Waits/William Burroughs/Robert Wilson collaboration The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets at the Ahmanson. The theater is part of the downtown LA Music Center (seen in the photo above), a lovely oasis filled with outdoor bars, trees full of lights, live salsa bands, and two separate venues. Even without tickets to an event, it would be a nice place to pass some time.

The Black Rider was first produced in 1990, and a few years later, I picked up the CD, relishing Waits's music and lyrics and Burroughs's odd textual stylings. I had missed any chance to see the production until now. I was lucky enough to see Woyzeck, another Waits/Wilson collaboration, at BAM in 2002 and it whet my appetite for more - more of Wilson's fabulist dreamscapes and more of Waits's trademark carnival genius. (Waits's 2002 release Blood Money features music from Woyzeck, including the haunting "God's Away on Business.")

In the program for The Black Rider at the Ahmanson, Susan Sontag is quoted as experiencing a "shock of recognition" at her first Wilson production, and the essay goes on the make much of this aspect of the director's work. I found this description somewhat surprising in that it seems to me that Wilson is going for the reinforcement of distancing eccentricity: costumes are lavishly made of materials that could not survive quotidian exposure; the choreography emphasizes how readily the body moves against rhythm; language is not a vehicle of meaning; faces are not palettes for relevant emotions, but disembodied theatrical props. Perhaps Sontag was evoking Freud's notion of the uncanny, deriving "its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but--on the contrary--from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it." The effect of Wilson's vision in combination with the work of Waits and Burroughs is utterly compelling and disturbing.

The general plot of The Black Rider is simple - a young clerk must make a deal with the devil to acquire magic bullets that will allow him to prove his hunting prowess and marry his beloved. The execution of this narrative, however, is not so straightforward, but this is where the beauty lies. Unfortunately, I had two middle-aged couples next to me who were not prepared for Wilson's style. (If I were still living in New York, I would make some crack about how they were probably from New Jersey. Orange County, perhaps?) For most of the first act, they sighed, rolled their eyes, laughed uncomfortably. The husbands comforted their wives by rubbing their backs in some effort at protection from the unconventional ideas. At intermisson, they proclaimed, "There is absolutely nothing about this play that is not challenging!" I think Wilson, Waits, and Burroughs would be proud.

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