Based on the German folk tale Der Freischütz, already adapted by Weber for his 1821 opera of the same name, Black Rider is covered in the grimy, brilliant fingerprints of William S Burroughs, who wrote the book, and composer-lyricist Tom Waits. A fearless cast drawn from opera, cabaret and theatre revel in both the grime and brilliance, as Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera once again unite to take musical theatre beyond the comfort zone.

Both timeless and deeply modern because of its theme of addiction, this tragicomic fable centres on Wilhelm the clerk. He is in love with Kätchen, but her father does not approve; he wants her to marry a huntsman, and already has one lined up. Wilhelm goes to the forest, where his dismal rifle skills are transformed by a Faustian pact with Pegleg. This devilish character offers him bullets that will never miss their mark, but warns that one will remain under her control. Wilhelm is immediately hooked on easy success. The wedding is set and Pegleg’s magic bullet finds its victim.

Black RiderDimity Shepherd and Kanen Breen in Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre’s Black Rider. Photos © Pia Johnson

Black Rider, which premiered in Hamburg in 1990, has only been presented on these shores once before, at the 2005 Sydney Festival. This new co-production is led by Malthouse artistic director Matthew Lutton, who is developing a head-turning reputation for the macabre (most recently helming the outstanding Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man).

Together with set and costume designer Zoë Atkinson, Lutton has created a stark world that’s part shooting gallery, part marionette stage, populated by characters with little or no control over their lives. A boxy, brightly lit set of white patchwork surfaces is scattered with half-hidden hatches and doors, and intermittently enlivened by old-fashioned painted backdrops, a colourful picture-book vignette and the finale’s mess of fake blood and oil. Heavily made up and dressed in simple, monochrome costumes with exposed stitching and ragged hems, the cast move unnaturally – they are Pegleg the puppet master’s playthings.

Kanen Breen is splendid as Wilhelm. His physical theatre skills are crucial to the character’s journey from bumbling romantic to euphoric and ultimately deranged addict. A comically wild-eyed shooting frenzy and an all-in smearing of that blood and oil are particularly memorable. His fine, confident tenor is showcased in Black Rider’s most traditional, almost operatic moment, The Briar and the Rose duet, with Dimity Shepherd’s Kätchen. She renders her character almost rigid with anxiety, and triumphs with the tragic, ragged-voiced solo I’ll Shoot the Moon.

Black RiderJacqueline Dark and Richard Piper in Black Rider.

As Kätchen’s parents, thespian Richard Piper and opera singer Jacqueline Dark, both renowned veterans in their fields, embrace their roles, which are equal parts solid conservatism and Black Rider madness. Cabaret stars Paul Capsis and Briton Le Gateau Chocolat have all too little stage time as shadowy figures akin to a Greek chorus, though Capsis’ kooky vignette about Pegleg’s past pacts with the unsuspecting is a show highlight. As Kätchen’s would-be groom, Winston Hillyer plays the relatively straight man of the piece with assurance.

Black RiderMeow Meow in Black Rider.

While Breen thrills with his antics, cabaret queen Meow Meow is equally compelling as the spidery Pegleg. From her spindly booted legs to the sharply cornered shoulders of her jacket, she is all in black, moving with a slow, playful wickedness throughout. Her powerful, expressive alto puts Black Rider into top gear from the outset with the title song.

Led by Victorian Opera’s Phoebe Briggs, the band of modest size but robust sound rolls with Waits’ eclectic score, which leaps from Weimar cabaret to spaghetti Western, folk music to silent-movie sound effects. Their instruments are suitably eclectic: traditional brooders such as the contrabassoon, tuba and double bass; old-timers including a banjo, ‘singing saw’ and antique American missionary organ (its honky-tonk jangling and wailing are crucial); and a mass of percussion, including found objects such as bottles and a bucket.

This avant-garde piece of Americana won’t appeal to all, but for those who like a good dose of gallows humour and eccentricity in their musical theatre, Black Rider is a sure bet.

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is at the Merlyn Theatre, Melbourne, until October 8.


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