Black Rider’s Magic Extends Way Beyond Bullets

November Theatre’s production of The Black Rider is the most creative and innovative piece of theatre that I have seen in Toronto. I moved to Toronto because it is the “hub of Canadian culture,” where a theatre student expects to be introduced to (if not inundated with) the avant-garde. Except, The Black Rider is only riding on through Toronto at the tail end of a journey that began ten years ago. Once again, I bring you a tale that starts in Edmonton and demonstrates vividly the inspiring and amazing “we can do anything!” attitude that seems to run so rampant in Alberta. An attitude I wish the Albertans could bottle and disseminate to the rest of the country, who I think could use a little dose of optimism.
In 1998 Michael Scholar, Jr. produced the World English Premiere of Tom Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs’ rock opera The Black Rider at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival. The next year, he was invited to bring the show to the New York Fringe Festival where it became the highest selling show in festival history (beating out a then unknown Urinetown). In 2000 the show toured to the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and back to the Edmonton Fringe Festival, and then in 2004-2005 the show appeared in Mainstage seasons of theatres across Western Canada: Theatre Network (Edmonton), Yukon Arts Centre (Whitehorse), Persephone Theatre (Saskatoon), Calgary Opera and Ground Zero (Calgary), PuSh Festival (Vancouver) and Intrepid Theatre (Victoria). The production and its talented artists have won numerous awards and made Canadian theatre history in becoming the one show to have ever won the “Best Production” award at the Jessie Awards (Vancouver), the Betty Mitchell Awards (Calgary) and the Sterling Awards (Edmonton). The final run of The Black Rider plays at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto until November 16th, 2008.
Robert Wilson urges audiences beholding his work to “listen to the pictures” and that is exactly what is so striking about The Black Rider. It is a true example of the ideal Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total or complete artwork.” It uses elements of opera, musical theatre, American avant-garde theatre, ballet, folktale, poetry, fairytale, clowning, and moments reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons, to create a stunning picture to be interpreted from varying perspectives. The most impressive part about this production is that it’s one thing to study the work of Robert Wilson, and to research the fascinating and innovative work that has been created in Europe and in New York since 1960, but it’s an entirely different thing to be able to take this knowledge and to apply it to a production and to create something that is so magnificent, creative, bold and beautiful… not to mention successful.
Ron Jenkins’ direction is absolutely perfect. It is stunning. It is awing. It is rich and intricate and every movement each actor makes is precise, deliberate and detailed. The story is told, as Wilson would want it, with pictures, and the pictures are complex and contradictory and perhaps more vivid and poignant than any words could be. There are moments where your jaw will drop in wonder. Marie Nychka’s choreography is beautiful and at times dazzling and emerges from the direction with perfect ease.
Tom Waits’ incredible music is delivered with skill and spirit by three amazing musicians, Duane Elias (Chapman stick/ bass/ percussion), Bryce Kulak (piano) and Corinne Kessel, (trombone/ clarinet/ accordion/ percussion), who was also the musical director. It is truly amazing to know that an entire orchestra’s worth of talent and beauty is being created by just three people!
Of course, there would be no show without the six extraordinary actors who bring Jenkins’ direction of such a rich, strange piece to life with so much talent and incredible skill. Mackenzie Gray goes almost beyond the bounds of comedy with Robert, the vulgar hunter Bertram wants to marry Kattchen. His Duke is ominous and haunting and his Georg Schmid is filled with fascination. Colleen Winton uses her body and voice beautifully to create a rich portrait of Anne, a character so familiar in fairytales, a mother and wife who loves them both, but whose power has been entirely usurped and dominated by her husband’s will. Ashley Wright has a beautifully commanding voice as Bertram, every word he says sounds like poetry, and he emanates stage presence and charm, even as he condemns his daughter to a tragic fate by insisting she marry a hunter. Rachael Johnston is a tour de force in this show, with talents that defy my description. Her singing voice is absolutely fantastic and versatile, her physical work is stunning, and she has a moment as Angel of Foof that will leave you breathless with laughter and incredibility. Kevin Corey uses nuanced clown work, and fantastic physical skill to create loveable Wilhelm, damned to be the devil’s page in the name of love. Corey is at once funny and poignant, tragic and childlike. His final song will break your heart. And Michael Scholar, Jr. is sheer brilliance as Peg Leg, the Devil. His movements and facial expressions are so simple and specific they are worth a thousand words. His singing voice is fantastic and overall he creates a delicious, creepy, sexy, ominous, delightful, terrifying Satan package whose energy is the heartbeat of this amazing show.
It seems apt that The Black Rider is sold out for its final five performances. I wish that I had been able to see the show before tonight, but obviously (and thankfully) with so much talent and creativity on display, the show didn’t need my blog for publicity. I do have a hope that the incredible performers from the West will continue to tour their work to Toronto. I also hope that performers here will take inspiration from their Western contemporaries to believe that they can produce the shows that they want, and they can create work that is exciting and dynamic and new and different and avant-garde and that it can be a success. I urge you all to follow your hearts and to invest in the projects of your dreams. You’ll be so glad and proud that you did. And so will I.

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