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.
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.
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.