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Arts and Entertainment

The Black Rider's wild ride

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The Black Rider is stunning in its vision. On a nearly blank stage, actors move like broken puppets; costumes and makeup are extraordinary, horrific, expressionistic. The mastermind is director Robert Wilson, who has created a performance that is striking and unforgettable.

Wilson had two bigtime collaborators — Tom Waits wrote the music and William S. Burroughs wrote the story — but in the end it is the director who commands the show, now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA. Its first performance was in Germany in 1990, and the Germanness shows: it's the reworking of an 1821 opera, so hunting and the woods are very important.

The story is roughly this: nerdish boy meets girl, girl has overbearing (and very funny) father, father prefers another, loutish boy for his daughter, nerdish boy makes a pact with the devil to meet with dad's approval, things go predictably awry.

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There is minimal set decoration that comes and goes, including pine trees that unfold and collapse like accordions, outlines of chairs and (our favorite) huge piles of foam meat. Beams of light slice across the dark stage. The costumes create unchanging silhouettes of stiff skirts and monstrous collars. With the actors moving from one awkward pose to another, the entire effect is like a woodcut series come to life.

And what of the music, you ask? We're Tom Waits fans, so we liked the wicked cabaret feel. But we wished that Waits' gift for intimate storytelling had gotten more play; instead, the wacky carnival elements of his songs became the center of the score. Luckily the singing is all fantastic, with Nigel Richards, as Georg (the lout with the hair over one eye) really knocking it out of the park.

The book, by Burroughs, is very, um, Burroughs — in other words, hallucinatory, circular, disjointed. It makes the most sense when a recording of Burroughs himself reading plays over the action; his own rhythms bring a logic to the words.

The Black Rider is a fable and a nightmare, entirely artificial, constantly reminding you that you're watching a choreographed performance. It doesn't ask you to like it; it doesn't coddle up or get cute or even try to connect to your emotions. Perhaps, at times, it even tries to alienate you. We saw empty seats after intermission, but we were happy to stay. It's an amazing performance.

The Black Rider is playing at The Ahmanson Theatre through June 11
Tickets are $30-$90