No one does pretty like Robert Wilson. No one does creepy like him, either.
Under his directorial wizardry, misty moonlit nights give way to green-hued forest days only to be transformed into withering winter deadness. Cerulean vistas explode with the unnatural colors of an atomic blast. And illuminated objects and faces blanched with pancake makeup fall into gracefully geometric patterns of spiking menace.
"The Black Rider," the ultra-decadent Faustian cabaret with book by William S. Burroughs and music by Tom Waits, offers a virtual catalog of Wilson's signature scenic brilliance. This English-language production, which had its American premiere in 2004 at ACT San Francisco and opened Wednesday in a somewhat belated remount at the Ahmanson Theatre, hasn't yet entirely come together.
But for those who want to experience one of the foremost innovators of contemporary stagecraft, performed by an ensemble that, at its best, exemplifies the rigor of his hallucinatory vision, this isn't a bad place to start. Let's be clear, however, "Black Rider's" undeniably eye-catching aesthetic isn't for everyone.
Wilson's style can paralyze his storytelling. The glacial pacing can infuriate. And the theatrical vocabulary he's patented -- so distinctive in look and motion, so influential in extending the possibilities of an integrated stage beauty -- can seem annoyingly repetitious, disconnected from dramatic significance and tediously self-indulgent.
I owe Wilson for some of the most spectacularly beautiful moments I've had in a theater; I also owe him for some of the dullest.
"Einstein on the Beach," his groundbreaking collaboration with Philip Glass, will always be a watershed moment in my theatergoing, as surely as it has been a landmark for the late-20th-century avant-garde. But I've felt increasingly impatient during my last few encounters with Wilson's work. I loathed "The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III," his distastefully fanciful collage on apocalypse that left me grumpily catatonic. Nor was I an admirer of his exquisite but shallow handling of Buchner's "Woyzeck" (at UCLA Live in 2002) or his soporific fantasia of Strindberg's surreal and apparently unplayable "A Dream Play." Trusted friends told me that I would have thought more of his "Madama Butterfly," which I caught earlier this season at the Los Angeles Opera, had I experienced it during its freshly minted American premiere here in 2004.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I'm not exactly a member of Wilson's cult. Yet I have a weird lingering fondness for "Black Rider," which was first introduced to me 15 years ago on video by an Austrian dramaturge who saw the work's premiere in Hamburg in 1990 and who delighted in the fretful European concern over whether this darkly fun expressionistic cartoon could (perish the thought) be considered kitsch. By the time the German-language production reached the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1993, it was possible to simply enjoy the work for what it was -- a rare and successful foray for Wilson into a more accessible (if not quite popular) entertainment that, irony of all ironies, represented a better meld of subject and style than the bulk of his loftier endeavors.
Inspired by an old German fable, which was the basis for Carl Maria von Weber's opera "Der Freischutz," "The Black Rider" revolves around a pen-wielding clerk named Wilhelm (Matt McGrath), who is prevented from tying the knot with his love, Kathchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara), because her father insists that she marry a hunter.
Enter the devil. Well, actually, the devil's been hanging around the whole time as a kind of emcee, which is part of the depraved joke. To get the girl of his dreams, Wilhelm cuts a Faustian bargain with the diabolical Pegleg (a game Vance Avery), who grants him a supply of magic bullets that will never miss their mark -- that is, until the tragic end, when the debt finally comes due in the most perversely unfair way.
Wilson's approach to the old German folk tale is colored by the different sensibilities of his collaborators. First, there's the sumptuously designed Weimar-era cabaret with Kabuki inflections that Wilson has made one of his specialties. Then there are the undercurrents of Burroughs' adaptation, which register the author's perennial themes of addiction ("My hand feels for the bullets, like a junky groping for his stash") and marital violence (echoing Burroughs' own murder of his common law wife in a debauched game of William Tell). Finally, there's the gravelly jazz of Waits that combines stark Brecht-Weill attitude with more directly emotional American lyricism.