or, the juxtaposition of previously unrelated trajectories

*Important* Come on along to The Black Rider

My daughter emailed me from school with *important* *urgent* in the subject line, asking me to book her tickets to see The BlackRider: The Casting of The Magic Bullets. She had told me about this play earlier in the week and had been surprised that although I knew nothing about the play, I did know all the songs from the album The Black Rider by Tom Waits. I admit, it’s always weird when  your mum knows your music, but I must admit, I was equally surprised to learn my eleven-year-old daughter was into Tom Waits, in particular, the dark and kooky album The Black Rider. 

All can be explained, however, since the play itself features the clarinet in the musical score, and my daughter and her friend had been trying to develop a clarinet/piano duet of ‘Just the right bullets’ in their self-directed music class at their alternative school, where, as her friend quipped, “everyone’s so weird that weird is normal”. (I concur. I visited the other day at lunchtime and saw a boy strolling sedately in a top hat and a girl dressed in a unicorn t-shirt galloping around the quad. No one batted an eyelid.) I wasn’t so sure that a play featuring the music of The Black Rider was going to be suitable for eleven-year-olds just out of primary school, but my daughter’s friend had been at all the rehearsals, and tonight’s performance was especially for school-age young adults.

So, newly united in our fascination with Tom Wait’s music, we joined her friend at The Free Theatre for the NZ adaptation of The Black Rider, directed by Peter Falkenberg and featuring noir country singer and troubadour Delaney Davidson. From the first few moments of interaction, the cast were incredible: those on the door were already in character, faces painted white and black, moving jerkily like puppets. The stage was eerily lit and sloped impossibly towards the audience, punctuated with poles that mimicked the trees of a German forest — but also handily providing something to hold on to as the cast acted on this unusual surface. As the music began, and Delaney Davidson launched into the opening ‘song’ of ‘The Lucky Day Overture’, my face broke into the hugest grin of enjoyment that stayed firmly fixed as the cast went straight on to the title song ‘The Black Rider’.  I am transported back in time to my teenage self, cross-legged on the floor of the hippy neighbour’s house, as I explore their tape collection while the duly baby-sat kids slept soundly. Before smart phones and ipads, when all you had to do as a baby-sitter was go through the music collection of your employers, and do your homework, of course. That is where and when I discovered The Black Rider, a teenager fascinated with that which was nothing like anything I had listened to before, or since (except, perhaps, for some similarly wacky songs in Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy album).

But the grin was not just in place because of nostalgia — the pieces were just so brilliantly performed, with Pegleg/Davidson’s crazed face matched only by the craziness of the lyrics, the set, the sound, and the puppet-like movements of the entire cast around him, and of course the ‘magic’ of the tiny curtained cubicle from which the entire cast emerges and disappears. The plot is summarised in its entirety in this piece, with Pegleg – the devil – manipulating the desires and characters of the cast for his own evil and pointless amusement. The play is based on a German folk tale, with a wonderful piece of opera in the middle performed by Emma Johnston as Kätchen (apparently from an opera based on the same folk tale). There is also a moving and powerful performance by Aaron Hapuku as Wilhelm in an adaptation of a scene, where he breaks into Te Reo Māori in his deepest distress.

The grin leaves my face, of course, in these and other places, because the themes of the play are the crushing and impossible expectations of others, and the power of addiction. I can see why this *is* an appropriate play for teenagers, because those themes are timeless. In attentive silence, we are serenaded by Pegleg, in an achingly beautiful reindition of ‘November’ (is it just me, or does it feel like Davidson/Pegleg looks into your soul as he sings this?). We hear the desires of the parents Bertram (George Parker) and Anne (Greta Bond) as they argue about whether their daughter should marry a pen-pushing clerk or Robert-the-hunting-boy (delightfully played by Marian McCurdy, in a form of over-the-top manliness that perhaps only a female actor could portray, reminding us of the fact these behaviours indiciating ‘manliness’ are learned). We see Kätchen and Wilhelm fly around the stage as they sing of their love. We see Wilhelm give in to the pressures of hunting-style ‘manliness’ and seek to prove himself. At this lowest moment of self-esteem, we see Pegleg enter with his sly offer of magic bullets. We see Wilhelm revel in his new powers, and the depths of despair when the bullets are finished. We see him beg and plead in deepest shame and humilation as he asks for that 7th bullet, the one which will belong to Pegleg. We see, in the end, the devastation wrought by that bullet.

Picture: from

At some point, I forget when, Bertram makes an appearance down in the audience — a kindly father figure, and Parker moralises a bit with the teens. I don’t know if this is part of the normal performance, but it breaks the tension, and provides some space for reflection — he says, ‘you might think you can handle marijuana, but then it leads to heroin and you can’t get out’, among other things, bringing forth the theme of addiction for an audience that might not perhaps immediately make those connections unless they have been unlucky enough to have witnessed them already.

Finally, after the heartbreaking conclusion of the story, the cast return to their puppet-like movements, and Pegleg sings them off stage with his insanely scary open mouthed grin (I’m pretty sure Davidson must be in pain by the end of the performance).

And then, surprisingly, Pegleg/Davidson stands up straight and says in an ordinary unscary kiwi voice ‘Well that was nice wasn’t it, to hear all those old songs again?’. For some reason this leaving of character is jarring  but also comforting: the devil we imagine tempting us is sometimes just an illusion, the bargains we make can be broken, the puppet master is no master, but a monstrous mask, a puff of smoke, a fly in the ointment of healing. I think of all the times a person looms large, or an expectation looms overwhelmingly — and how often this is our own fears and self-doubt.

What I am left with is the thought that addiction begins not with the offering of the magic bullet, no. Addiction begins when we are overwhelmed with fear and doubt, when we cannot accept ourselves as loved or fundamentally enough. When these needs are not met, when we do not know our own state as beloved, as ok, as good enough, well, it is then that magic bullets become attractive to block out all the cruel voices.

Kindly, the cast and crew stayed on afterwards to talk to the audience, especially the drama kids and musos like mine. I found that a bit difficult — I wanted to think on what I had experienced and savour the play without meeting the actors. I never know what is appropriate to say after that kind of powerful performance — perhaps Delaney Davidson’s kiwi-understatement of ‘well that was nice wasn’t it?’ might not seem so appropriate to a group of actors and musicians who have just poured their incredible talents and energy into a couple of hours of tight performance. What could I possibly say without revealing my absolute ignorance of the craft, the play, the theatre? But for the young people, this was appreciated. They could talk clarinet and Tom Waits, top hats and fedoras, horror and noir with a bunch of people who, I suspect, were once affected in the same way by elders in their craft.

So folks, there is one more night of the show — will you come along for a ‘gay old time’?

The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets presented by The Free Theatre has returned for the Christchurch Arts FestivalTickets available on Eventfinda. Friday 1st September is the last show.

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