By Paul Jarvey
Bargains with the devil are never easy to escape, slinking through woods dark with allusion and symbolism. November Theatre’s The Black Rider took the Big Secret Theatre stage with unexpected brilliance. A dark dance of light and style paying no attention to an audience’s sense of warmth and comfort, it’s anything but unsatisfying. In this suave and maniacally untamed operetta, expressive meets expressionist, macabre meets mime, and the mischievous lyricism of Tom Waits meets the bitter criticisms of William Burroughs with dazzling results.
This wild performance of the operatic interpretation of German/Bohemian folktale Der Freishütz takes on a light entirely its own, from subtle jibes at the pretentious self inflation of the elite a look at the unpleasant side effects of heroin addiction. The story begins with Wilhelm, the love-struck clerk who can only win the acceptance of his love’s father by proving himself as a hunter. Fortunately for Wilhelm, he comes across assistance, free of charge, in the form of a handful of silver bullets that never miss their mark. After all, as the devil says, “The first one’s always free.”
Michael Scholar plays Peg Leg, the erratic and archetypical devil pushing his bullets like a dealer from the back alleys of New York. He’s a slick, half dressed vaudeville villain, complete with taunting romantic interludes and greasy hair. A bare-chested puppeteer limping like a three-legged dog, Scholar is the epitome of devilishness. Clinton Carew plays ringmaster in a truly exceptional performance, falling into step with the ill-fated Rachael Johnston and Kevin Corey as the clerk and his beloved, respectively. Playing off each other like light off broken glass, they bring the story head on into a devastatingly conclusion along with the talented Michele Brown, Corine Kessel and George Szilagyi.
But The Black Rider is far from depressing, regardless of how the story ends. Moments of hilarity and exceptional creativity hit hard and constantly throughout, making this romp through a wonderland soaked in colour highly entertaining. Accompanying the mainlining of nightmares is the deadly trio, the Devil’s Rubato Band, whose melodies add an unsettling ambiance to the play like the soundtrack to a half remembered dream. Featuring accomplished jazz and rock pianist Liz Han (formerly of ’80s chic-metal band Godiva), Dale Ladouceur of Mavens and Broke Ensemble and Corine Kessel, formerly of the Mad Bombers Society and reggae punk ensemble Los Furios, the band knows when to hit these beats. While at times the lack of elaboration from rarely paired instruments, like the trombone and chapman sticks, becomes a bit frustrating, these girls still know how to rock the Kasbah. A highlight of this performance, their simple interludes and manic groove is the perfect background to this twisted operetta.
At first, the stark stage design and atypical lighting design by Michael Kruse, seems to be nothing more than tacky high school kitch. But with its hard adherence to the minimalist aesthetics, using few props, the uncertain design becomes successful in reflecting the instability of the warped reality within the operetta. The stage is full of surprises. In a few moments, abstract vignettes bleed into a creatively presented post-heroin bum’s alleyway,
While the cast’s emotional extremes verge on jarring, and at brief moments, vocal performances falter, it’s nevertheless a trip through the woods revealing a spirit wild with mysterious intentions. It’s a play not about to go away just become it’s bedtime. Rocking the house with unexpected power, The Black Rider is straight from the night.