Surreal Black Rider Delights

The curtain call Source: Photo: Mike Amundsen

Tom Waits's "The Black Rider" at Tallinn's Kultuurikatel, September 20.

A stellar ensemble effort by Tallinn’s VAT Theater brought a magical and bizarre world to life at the Kultuurikatel Tuesday night. Proving once again that Tallinn’s art community has a knack for turning unlikely spaces into production venues, the disused “boiler” (katel) works near the port was an inspired, if slightly chilly choice. Blankets were, however, on offer. It was just the spot for this interpretation of “The Black Rider”.

Juxtaposing the industrial venue with the sylvan setting for the play proved only the first of many mind-stretching tropes. The evening started with a mincing drag queen setting the ground rules for the audience - turn off cell phones and all that jazz - before cackling off into the darkness. What followed was cool, cutting edge entertainment with a lot of humor.

“The Black Rider” has an interesting and long genealogy. Its origins are in German folk tales; a Faustian legend involving a young hunter’s love for a girl. German Romantic impresario Carl Maria von Weber created his opera “Der Freischütz” in the early 19th century based on these stories.  Leaping forward to the end of the 20th century, famous American avant-garde theater producer Robert Wilson brought together the talents of Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, who wrote the book version of “The Black Rider”, with singer-songwriter Tom Waits, who wrote the music and lyrics, to create the stage production. “The Black Rider” was first staged in Germany in 1990. An English- language production did not emerge for nearly another decade.

The VAT "Black Rider", directed by Germany’s Christian Römer, is a funny, dark musical comedy. The costumes, designed by Kathrin Hegedüsch, engendered an absurdist and cheeky tone. Bertram, the forester (played wonderfully by Raivo Tamm) and his daughter Käthchen, who is the play’s love interest, sport antlers. Wilhelm, the nerdy clerk who fancies Käthchen, goes about in khakis and a pith helmet.

Choreography and stage production was clever and comical. When Wilhelm, having received the magic bullets from the devil, hits the mark on three deer in the forest, their slow-motion dying scene coupled with sound effects was hilarious. The stage setting, lined at the back with old refrigerators, provided some surprises. The frig containing Beelzebub on a television was a nice touch.

Which brings us to the devil himself, Pegleg, played by Lauri Saatpalu. Saatpalu was the consummate devil; greasy and menacing but charming. He also was a bit of a ringleader, for the play begins and ends with his soliloquies.  

Music is a big part of “The Black Rider”. The whole cast could hold its own singing, but the champ of the group was Sandra Uusberg as Käthchen, who hit all of her notes with clarity and perfect pitch. The leitmotif was a kind of Brecht and Weil inspired oompah which the band plowed through off and on. The band for the production is Tunnetusüksus (Perception Unit), well known and longstanding in Estonia. They did a fine job with Waits’ score.

And video was important to “The Black Rider” as well. Rene von der Waar produced this part of the creation. Wilhelm’s dream sequence after a drinking bout was an especially entertaining video interlude.

I could go on and on. But I suggest you appreciate what words cannot adequately describe. Go and see “The Black Rider” if you can. It runs at the Kultuurikatel until October 1.


Review by Mike Amundsen

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