Billed as a “musical fable,” The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets tells of a man who makes a bargain with the devil to marry the woman he loves. Created by director Robert Wilson, composer Tom Waits, and writer William S. Burroughs, it had a famous production in Hamburg in 1990, then an influential tour/overhaul in 2004. Scenic designer Sean Riley caught the latter rendition at American Conservatory Theater.
This month the Bay Area’s Shotgun Players mounts a new version (running until Jan. 14, 2018), with Riley designing it—and trying not to copy Wilson’s original. “The challenge is to try to work with the knowledge of Wilson’s work and the way it’s been done before, but try to not let that influence you too much,” Riley says.
One thing that helps: the size of the stage, just 30 by 30 feet, with no wing or fly space, “so there’s nowhere for any scenery to go or large pieces to disappear or appear,” Riley explains. Instead he had to create a stage picture that can support forest, castle, and Hell settings, as well as an onstage band. The main motif on the set is a bare forest, because “it’s such an iconic association with a fairy tale.” Upstage is a two-level set with the band on top and Hell on the bottom. “We have the band’s world, which is a cabaret nightclub with red velour curtain,” explains Riley. “Underneath is this carnival barker world, this old-timey cross between a carny freak show and Coney Island fun house.”
For props, Riley had a macabre inspiration. “There’s a coffin that rolls out onto the stage, and that coffin supports a lot of different scenic elements,” he says. “It can roll out to be a kitchen table or an arsenal stacked with guns. It also is the coffin from which Pegleg [the devil] comes and goes.” The coffin is automated and controlled by remote. “It’s like Mary Poppins’s bag—it can be whatever it needs to be.”