The music of Tom Waits is meant for the stage. The freak shows he has paraded through his songs started out with down-and-out drunks, but over the years have included a pianist born without a body, a man with a lecherous extra face and a sideshow star who is nothing more than a baby-blue eye. Waits features his most compelling freaks to date in the musical The Black Rider. Based on the German folktale Der Freischütz, Waits collaborated with Einstein on the Beach’s Robert Wilson and Beat royalty William S. Burroughs to create a Faustian tale full of mocking stags, desperate hunters, scheming devils and wailing sinners.
The play could not be a better fit for the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Tucked away on a narrow side street, the theatre neighbors a colorless factory and a railroad yard. The tiered audience looks down on the stage and the room is no bigger than a large apartment. There is not a bad seat in the house unless you are one of the three musicians, crammed to stage left with an upright piano, an electric bass, a trombone, a clarinet, an accordion, bongos, high-hat and the arsenal of bastard percussion instruments that are essential to any Waits arrangement. Three crimson curtains are the only backdrop unless you count the ever-changing patterns of white and red triangles projected from overhead lights. Without announcement, a hulking clown appears on stage, walks gruffly to the center, raises a white horn to his mouth and screams, “Ladies and gentlemen! Harry’s Harbour Bizarre is proud to present – Under the Big Top tonight – Human Oddities!” And we’re off.
All seven characters in the small cast are painted white and the two women are barefoot. Everyone has a set character but abandons their role when extras are needed. The most engaging example of this is when the main character, Wilhelm, is testing out magic bullets given to him by Peg Leg, the devil. The cast lines up holding antlers to their head while Wilhelm points his gun straight into the air, fires, and one-by-one the deer fall.
The characters move in cartoonish contortions, which are as much slapstick as dementia. In a particularly memorable scene, Wilhelm’s love interest enters the stage alone dressed in men’s clothing. She babbles piercingly-high gibberish before leaning over and drooling copiously on the stage. A portion of the audience got up and left there. But the scene was not over; as the hulking announcer from the beginning of the play appears holding marionette handles and forces the possessed girl to dance and twist as they sing “Flash Pan Hunter” together.
The play continues from one whimsically disturbing scene to the next, until a fatal mistake draws the characters and the crowd to an absolute silence that Sigur Rós only wishes they could get their American audiences to uphold. In a moment so perfect it could not have been planned, a train rumbled by in the dead silence shaking the theatre and clattering through the stillness. Even with all the instruments on stage, nothing could have been a more appropriate soundtrack to a Waits’ character’s death than a barreling locomotive.
As soon as the production ends, you want to see it again. The music is not The Black Rider album verbatim (“T’Aint No Sin” is noticeably missing) but the live trio utilize an impressive array of instruments to reproduce the amount of noise (or as John Cage would say “music”) on the album. The actors thankfully don’t attempt Tom Waits vocal impressions but instead adapt the songs more dramatically. “November” and “Lucky Day” are performed as desperate laments without a hint of Waits’ original howl. “Crossroads” is done twice, once mournfully and then shouted in a demonic circle of antlers. “That’s the Way” is given a wanderlust extension and “The Briar and the Rose” follows like a jilted puppet show instead of Waits’ crooning ballad.
The production is no doubt Fringe, but completely without the standard bullshit of Experimental Theatre. Everything is done for a reason and constantly moves the story forward. The play is truly a simple story that has been done many times in infinite incarnations, but thanks to the Rain Dog, the author of Naked Lunch, and America’s foremost vanguard theatrical artist, mixed with a perfect cast and a honed music section, The Black Rider comes alive at “Ladies and Gentlemen. Harry’s Harbour Bar is proud to present…”
by Brian Loeper