Two years ago, the Ahmanson Theater was daring enough to stage The Black Rider, an avant-garde extravaganza that featured music by Tom Waits; sets, costumes and lighting by Robert Wilson and words by William Burroughs. Seeing this ravishing, dreamlike show and observing the audience response brought to mind 1912 Paris when Nijinsky first danced “The Afternoon of a Faun.” Our laid-back Angeleno audiences didn’t throw rotten tomatoes or riot but season subscribers walked out in angry droves, which left prime seats vacant for the hoi polloi like me to slip into as ushers looked the other way. I don’t know of any show in recent memory that has so polarized audiences. You either loved it or hated it.
The Black Rider captivated me like a fever dream, but like all things it has slowly dimmed. So I was thrilled to learn that some kind soul has recently put much of the 1990s German production up on YouTube. While I miss Matt McGrath’s earnest Wilhelm, Vance Avery’s sexy Pegleg and Nigel Richards’ delirious Georg, the European actors are just as good and all the songs are all in English – albeit sung with European accents. The sets, costumes and make-up are also very similar to the Ahmanson production, so all you Black Rider junkies can now get your fix and those who missed it can see a tiny fraction of what the fuss was about.
I found The Black Rider so mind-bending that I went back five or six times, mostly using those nifty $20 rush seats. On closing weekend, I sat between a 20-ish girl who’d painted her face green and purple and a middle-aged teacher who showered roses on Pegleg and Wilhelm at curtain.
I wish the Ahmanson would release a soundtrack or video of the Los Angeles production of The Black Rider. I’ve worn grooves on my Tom Waits CD of the same name, but the stage production had additional songs and music. I’m not sure why L.A.’s theater-goers didn’t flock to this surreal cabaret. Hollywood is the Dream Factory, after all. Which means the world of The Black Rider is also here. It’s just hiding in the shadows.