Shotgun's Daring 'Black Rider' Aims for, and Pierces, the American Heart

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Wilhelm (Grace Ng) has a problem with shooting and guns and bullets. (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

What an artist seeks out, an artist finds. When William Burroughs accidentally shot his wife Joan Vollmer while playing a game they liked to call "William Tell," he entered a state of trauma that would last for the whole of his career, an aesthetic awakening born of disaster.

Burroughs saw the sinister logic of all fables and myths of reckoning -- as children of the fall, Adam and Eve’s as well as Lucifer’s, we’re always looking for everything to go very, very wrong. So it’s appropriate that disaster is the governing spirit for Burroughs, Tom Waits, and Robert Wilson in their neo-Brechtian musical, The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, which gets an acid-soaked reworking under Mark Jackson’s inspired direction for the Shotgun Players.

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Old Uncle (Kevin Clarke) is always ready to use his bullhorn and shout out a few pertinent messages in 'The Black Rider,' at Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage. (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

Like all fairy tales, the story is simple. Wilhelm loves Kätchen, but Kätchen’s father Bertram is a huntsman and is dubious of a clerk who can’t shoot. Dad prefers Robert, who knows his way around guns, despite his wife Anne’s protestations about true love. There’s not one but two devils: Old Uncle and Peg Leg, the latter with a supply of magic bullets that kind of always hit their mark, or somewhere close to it.

It takes a perverse spirit to ask a man named William who mistakenly shot his wife dead to write a libretto about a man named Wilhelm who can't shoot and is about to be married. That’s Wilson for you, though, a master producer and creator of theatrical extravaganzas — everything he touches turns into a comic nightmare of perfectly composed and striking stage images.

The Black Rider, with its German cabaret-style score, premiered in Hamburg in 1990 and became an international sensation in both style, substance, and reception. In 2017, Jackson and Shotgun bring the tale back to America, where it belongs — not only because of the distinctly American voices of Burroughs (Missouri) and Waits (a master of mutated, bluesy Americana), but because we are a country that loves our guns and bullets.

Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) teaches Wilhelm (Grace Ng) in the ways of the gun.
Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) teaches Wilhelm (Grace Ng) in the ways of the gun in 'The Black Rider.' (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

In Wilson’s heavily European influenced productions, actors are often lathered in white makeup, three swatches short of a Kabuki mask and hard to tell apart. Everyone’s a twin in clown white. In contrast, Jackson and Shotgun cast with an eye to the American street. It’s as if they went out and bought costumes for types -- accountant, huntsman, devil, ingénue, mom -- and then looked around for anyone with enough crazy verve and talent to bring those clothes to life.


Hey, performance artist El Beh, want to play a prick with a gun, here's some fatigues and a fake beard. Rotimi Agbabiaka, we've got a ruffled shirt and one red boot, how 'bout Peg Leg? You'll do it if you play him three times past laconic, you're in! Got a gray suit and goofy glasses, Grace Ng, Wilhelm's calling you. Kevin Clarke, you're the best hair actor in the Bay Area, get your scissors ready!

(L to R) Wilhelm (Grace Ng, Kätchen (Noelle Viñas), Bertram (Steven Hess), Anne (Elizabeth Carter), Old Uncle (Kevin Clarke), Robert (El Beh), and Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) dance and sing their way to hell.
(L to R) Wilhelm (Grace Ng, Kätchen (Noelle Viñas), Bertram (Steven Hess), Anne (Elizabeth Carter), Old Uncle (Kevin Clarke), Robert (El Beh), and Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) dance and sing their way to hell in 'The Black Rider.' (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

Some might call it non-traditional casting. I’d argue that it’s just the kicks of theater and putting on a show. To see the cast lined up on the stage is to see America: every race, an array of ages, small and tall, the bald and the hirsute. There’s a joyous democratic spirit present that's lost in the high gloss of Wilson’s original production.

But in bringing The Black Rider to its American core, Shotgun also brings us back to guns and bullets and the trauma at the heart of Burroughs’ art -- after all, he’s a confessed killer, and no matter which way the story goes it keeps circling back to murders, inadvertent or otherwise.

So despite all the exuberance and skill here — of the acting, of Waits' beautiful music (under the direction of the Awesöme Orchestra’s David Möschler), of Jackson’s funhouse staging — we're essentially watching a nightmare creep into reality, one we feel coming every step of the way. And in that sense the production is truly post-traumatic, a show fueled by the shock and desperation of knowing that you have shot a gun, that you have enjoyed hearing the crack of the bullet, and that when the smoke has cleared, you have murdered someone you loved.

Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) has a few devilish messages we should all heed.
Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) has a few devilish messages we should all heed in 'The Black Rider.' (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

It’s quite a message for a show and production of such stunning grace and pleasure. As Peg Leg sings, “The bullet may have its own will / you never know whom it will kill.” The devil knows, though, and in the end he’s happy that we only see him halfway coming.

And as for our happiness in America, well, Shotgun’s Black Rider makes it clear: we just want to keep pulling that trigger.

‘The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets’ runs through Sunday, Dec. 31, at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information, click here.