<preform>The Black Rider, Barbican, London <br>Fuddy Meers, Arts, London<br> Lucky Dog, Royal Court Upstairs, London <br>Yellowman, Hampstead, London</preform>

To hell and back on the wings of a dove
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The Independent Culture

There's the devil to pay in The Black Rider and Marianne Faithfull has risen from hell, in a scarlet tailcoat with chalk-white face, to claim her dues. Yes, Faustian pacts cost lives in this highly stylised "musical fable", created by designer-director Robert Wilson, Tom Waits (score and lyrics) and the late William Burroughs (penned in 1990). This show is more akin to a macabre Berlin cabaret than Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz, but the narrative source is the same. In his loosely associative poetic style, Burroughs retells the folk tale about an untalented huntsman who has to prove his marksmanship to win his bride and, in desperation, resorts to satanic magic bullets. The striking difference is that, while Weber showed his repentant hero some mercy, the beatnik, the rock composer and the US avant-gardist are more pessimistic and punitive. Their hunter, Matt McGrath's Wilhelm, is clearly addicted like a junkie to those bullets from the underworld. He kills his betrothed, Käthchen, when

There's the devil to pay in The Black Rider and Marianne Faithfull has risen from hell, in a scarlet tailcoat with chalk-white face, to claim her dues. Yes, Faustian pacts cost lives in this highly stylised "musical fable", created by designer-director Robert Wilson, Tom Waits (score and lyrics) and the late William Burroughs (penned in 1990). This show is more akin to a macabre Berlin cabaret than Weber's 1821 opera Der Freischütz, but the narrative source is the same. In his loosely associative poetic style, Burroughs retells the folk tale about an untalented huntsman who has to prove his marksmanship to win his bride and, in desperation, resorts to satanic magic bullets. The striking difference is that, while Weber showed his repentant hero some mercy, the beatnik, the rock composer and the US avant-gardist are more pessimistic and punitive. Their hunter, Matt McGrath's Wilhelm, is clearly addicted like a junkie to those bullets from the underworld. He kills his betrothed, Käthchen, when he thinks he's aiming at a dove, and finishes up lonely and mad, curled on the floor, clutching at a sheet.

This is particularly interesting given that Burroughs wandered the globe after he fatally shot his common-law wife, apparently during a drug-addled game of William Tell. For sure, The Black Rider is post-modern, with its singers cocking a sardonic eyebrow whenever they belt out morally didactic rhyming couplets. Nevertheless, the message ultimately amounts to "just say no" (to shooting up, to gun culture and to deals with seductive baddies). The unfortunate meta-irony is that Wilson has shot himself in the foot by casting the glazed, maladroit Faithfull as his prowling demon. Her celebrity may boost ticket sales but, goddamn, she can't even twirl her vampish coat tails without getting in a twist. Moreover, the humour is often less sophisticated than The Munsters, and the director loses the plot in the messy second half.

That said, it's worth suffering the nadirs because The Black Rider is often transcendentally thrilling. Wilson's hallucinatory Expressionist visuals include a stunning trompe l'oeil flying sequence where the lovers' limbs melt into thin air. As Käthchen, Mary Margaret O'Hara's kabuki-influenced clowning is exceptionally droll and disturbing. Waits's songs are electrifying too, entwining lovely folk airs with a rasping strings and sinister circus trombones, or lacing a funky Latin number with a hair-raising, strung-out operatic wail. Even if this isn't as taut as the Wilson-Waits take on Woyzeck, the Barbican's international BITE season remains invaluably adventurous.

One might wonder exactly who Sam Mendes is in league with under the aegis of his new roving production company. Scamp's first venture is Fuddy Meers, a farce by David Lindsay-Abaire, that has got US crowd-pleaser written all over it. As a scenario, it's a bit like Groundhog Day meets The Man Who. Claire (Katie Finneran) is a housewife and amnesiac who wakes each morning and asks her husband, Richard, who he is. We glean there's been some past trauma. Then Lindsay-Abaire goes zany. A lisping, hobbling, one-eyed jailbird kidnaps the merrily credulous Claire, insisting he's her long-lost bro. Their supposed mother, Gertie, tries to tell Claire the truth but talks gibberish (because she's had a stroke). Meanwhile, the convict's accomplice, Millet, is a psycho with a glove-puppet for an alter ego: think Fozzy Bear with bad language.

Lindsay-Abaire will, no doubt, go far in Hollywood. Fuddy Meers is already being developed as a motion picture. He teases you with preposterous plot twists and the dialogue is strewn with gags. Nicholas Le Prevost is outstandingly funny as the increasingly delinquent Richard, and Julia McKenzie is witty as the gabbling Gertie - like Mrs Malaprop and then some. Matthew Lillard (Shaggy from the Scooby Doo movies) is also having a high old time with his puppet pal. But director Angus Jackson's manic production soon grows tiresome, and at the end of the day this is shallow nonsense.

Lucky Dog is a far more interesting, unsettling new play by Leo Butler. The initial set-up may not be hugely original but, with astute directing from James Macdonald, this is a darkly funny and remarkably poignant portrait of a marriage. Eddie and Sue's Christmas dinner is a bleak scene, in spite of the paper hats and crackers. The couple are sitting with only the turkey carcass for company, stranded with each other. Their son has left home and Linda Bassett's dowdy Sue talks about trivia to fill the silence. Alan Williams's hatchet-faced, potentially murderous Eddie rarely responds.

Bassett's tragicomic performance is astoundingly nuanced. The tiniest grimace when she gets no reply conveys spry humour yet simultaneously suggests she's fighting back tears. She also switches between the kindly and the sinister, especially when trying to charm the horrid little boy from next door (excellent Liam Mills). Butler's dialogue combines naturalistic chat (with a Sheffield dialect), a musical sense of phrase and pause, and surreal episodes (Bassett snarling like a dog).

But the last Act, where Sue and Eddie are suddenly translated to a sun-drenched beach, is an extraordinarily coup de théâtre. The closing, fragmented scenes are like a handful of inconsequential holiday snapshots that are, however, imbued with an almost heavenly sense of new-found tenderness and atonement. Excellent.

Hampstead Theatre has also landed a strong new play, at last. Transferring from Liverpool Playhouse, Yellowman is a two-hander by the Pulitzer Prize nominee Dael Orlandersmith and it explores black-vs-black racial tensions in the form of a memory play.

Cecilia Noble's dark-skinned Alma and Kevin Harvey's lighter-skinned Eugene never speak to each other but recall, in intercut monologues, how they became childhood friends in 1960s South Carolina then teenage sweethearts. They resist the prejudices harboured by their families.

However, suppressed rage - fuelled by drink - blows their lives apart in the end. Some plot developments are predictable but the storytelling has lyricism and momentum. Indhu Rubasingham's production is winningly simple, with just a chair and swing in front of a ghostly clapboard house. Noble and Harvey are warmly charismatic, their mercurial identities, transmogrifying into various sad and scornful relatives, also illustrates dramatically how everyone is possessed by their past. Commended.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'The Black Rider': Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7514), to 19 June; 'Fuddy Meers': Arts, London WC2 (020 7836 3334), to 28 Aug; 'Lucky Dog': Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 12 June; 'Yellowman': Hampstead, London NW3 (020 7722 9301), to 19 June

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