Steven Hess as Bertram / Old & Young Kuno, Elizabeth Carter as Anne in Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets by Shotgun Players. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs

While many theatre companies put on undemanding, feel-good musical shows for the holidays, leave it to Shotgun Players to produce the lauded Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. The play is an avant-garde expressionist take on a German folktale about a Faustian deal with the devil, written by beat author William S. Burroughs, Grammy winning singer-songwriter Tom Waits and director/designer/artist Robert Wilson.

Based on the German folktale Der Freischütz, which had previously been turned into a 19th-century opera by Carl Maria von Weber, Black Rider was first produced in 1990, and was a huge smash hit for San Francisco’s ACT in 2004.  Shotgun’s production should be just as popular. In fact, the run has already been extended.

Not for children, nor for all adults for that matter, Black Rider is a remarkably creative exercise in music and drama, with some standout acting and singing and Waits’ pleasingly melodic and acceptably atonal music played by a great live group. The quirkily effective direction by noted playwright and director Mark Jackson heightens the mood. Yet, despite all the weirdly dramatic ingredients and its lofty creators, the overall production doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. It is difficult to identify with the characters or to be stirred by their predicament, although that may not be the intent of the creators. 

Rotimi Agbabiaka as Pegleg in Black Rider by Shotgun Players. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs

Black Rider is introduced in a seedy carnival freak-show scene, and then morphs into an existential fable reminiscent of a Germanic Kurt Weill play with music. Wilhelm (terrific Grace Ng), a clerk, falls in love with Kätchen (lovely-voiced Noelle Viñas), a huntsman’s daughter. To win Kätchen’s hand, Wilhelm must prove his worth as a hunter. Unfortunately, as “a man of pen and ink”, he is clueless with a rifle. The devil, Pegleg (fabulous Rotimi Agbabiaka) offers him magic bullets that will always shoot accurately, except one, which Pegleg will control. Of course, the besotted Wilhelm accepts the deal with the devil, about which, the audience is told — more than once — “A devil’s bargain is always a fool’s bargain.”

Two fabulous performances highlight the production. Rotimi Agbabiaka as Pegleg — in a marvelous costume (by Christine Crook) wearing one high heel to simulate the peg leg — sings and acts with enormous talent and stage presence. Grace Ng is excellent as Wilhelm and performs amazing dance moves and acrobatics. In one wrong note, however, she bared her breasts in the final scene, for no discernible purpose.

There is a bizarre autobiographical element in Black Rider from Burroughs’s life which adds to the play’s magnetism for the curious. It stems from a tragic incident in Mexico City in 1951 in which a drunken Burroughs accidentally killed his wife with a pistol during a “William Tell” exhibition. It’s been theorized that the play may be considered a warning tale about the destructive powers of addiction and alcoholism.

Black Rider is a rare stage experience. To see it for the music alone would be reason enough, or the acting, for that matter, or simply for the sheer extravagance and theatricality of the production.

Black Rider is playing at the Ashby Stage through Jan. 21. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Shotgun Players online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...