Unlikely Trio of Artists Enlivens `Black Rider'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OFFBEAT collaborations are a recurring pleasure at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's annual Next Wave Festival, but rarely has BAM come up with such an unexpected assortment of artists as the trio who crafted ``The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets,'' one of the most eagerly awaited attractions on this season's program.

It was designed and directed by Robert Wilson, an elegant avant-gardist known for his slow-motion pacing and dreamlike images. The script was by William Burroughs, a founding member of the Beat Generation and a master of sardonic prose nightmares. The music was composed by Tom Waits, a pop troubadour with a gravelly style and a taste for surprising melodies and textures.

What brought these three together was a suitably unusual project: creating a set of darkly comic variations on the German folk tale that inspired Carl Maria von Weber's opera ``Der Freischutz'' in the early 19th century.

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The story centers on a clerk named Wilhelm whose yearning for a forester's daughter makes him easy prey for diabolical temptations. Hoping to win the lovely Kathchen by impressing her father with his shooting ability, Wilhelm uses magic bullets provided by the devil, only to lose his mind and soul as a result of his unfortunate bargain. Weber gave the yarn a happy ending, but the new version begins and ends in a madhouse, which makes an appropriate frame for the freewheeling weirdness of the show.

Of the three creative personalities who concocted ``The Black Rider,'' it's definitely Wilson who has put the most distinctive stamp on the production. The story unfolds through dancelike movements, stylized gestures, and painterly tableaux that bear his trademark blend of visual precision and hallucinatory humor.

His colleagues also have contributed their fair share, however. Burroughs's text draws on his longtime interest in addiction as a metaphor for social ills, showing Wilhelm's growing need for magic bullets as a tragic dependency that leads to his downfall.

Meanwhile, the most engaging surprise of the evening is Waits's music, which puts an inventive collection of instruments - from brass and woodwinds to a pump organ and a singing saw - at the service of a galumphing score that steers closer to the atmospherics of Kurt Weill than to the folksy inflections that made Waits a star in the 1970s.

For all the cleverness shown by its makers, ``The Black Rider'' can't be called a landmark achievement on the order of, say, ``Einstein on the Beach,'' the full-fledged masterpiece that Wilson created with composer Philip Glass some 18 years ago.

The energy in ``Black Rider'' often flags during the first of its two acts. Its verbal effectiveness is hampered for American audiences (in this production, at least) by surtitles that inadequately translate the largely German-speaking performance, featuring members of the Thalia Theater from Hamburg, where the show was first produced. Technical glitches also marred the opening-night performance.

Still, BAM deserves credit for bringing this ambitious work to the United States. Its creators are quintessentially American, even if their collaboration did originate in Germany. Despite its shortcomings, the joint endeavor shows all three artists in fascinating phases of their careers.

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