The Horror of the Human Animal

11/09/2009 11:00 AM |

Utilizing hellishly complex light cues, contrasting sounds and deliberate body movements, Robert Wilson has crafted avant-garde theatrical benchmarks for decades now. In the theater, where the word is king, he has deemphasized text and striven for a cold, precise plotting of subterranean sensations, lifting the lid on civilized decorum and the masks of words to peep not unkindly or unhumorously at the frantic, scary impulses of the human animal. Sometimes he has been a sort of choreographer, or an orchestrator of movement to music, and he found a key collaborator in the composer Philip Glass. In Einstein on the Beach, Wilson brought a tension and a muscularity to Glass's heartfelt repetitions, and their union called forth the best in their respective talents.

Wilson has staged Heiner Müller's Quartett before, and he returns to it now at BAM for a short run in their Next Wave Festival (through December 14). A scatological version of de Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses, it is filled with the most savage invective, always perfectly calibrated for maximum nausea, articulate talk of skin and lust and shit and death. The dialogue, which is in French with subtitles, is so strong, in fact, that Wilson has to work very hard to keep up with it, let alone match it, and there are times when the playwright and the director, both formidable in similar ways, seem to be at cross-purposes, or maybe even in competition. Those looking for literal interpretations of Wilson's imagery do so at their peril; it's better, and more Susan Sontag-esque, to give yourself over to the nuts and bolts erotics of Quartett rather than try to parse individual screeches, color codings or desperate pantomimes. Every moment compels attention; what these moments will mean to each viewer is up for grabs.

As the Marquise de Merteuil, Isabelle Huppert stalks around the stage in a jerky, doll-like manner, her famously sullen face as icy and inscrutable as it has been for years in countless films. Her withholding quality can be intriguing in some roles, maddening in others; here, she is ideally cast as an unrepentant monster, sarcastic, insincere, with flashes of truly creepy petulance. She alternates between maniacal laughter and deadpan recitals of her lack of feeling, while a flexible young couple and a comic old man cavort around her. Her Valmont (Ariel Garcia Valdès) is a clownlike fellow who also laughs maniacally and occasionally sticks out his tongue at us; they don't seem to have any relation to each other accept when they are switching identities, which feels almost romantic, if you dig deep in the stinking garbage heap of Müller's text.

The dominant colors of Quartett are red and blue, until the last scene, when the blue changes to a clinical white as Huppert lies prostrate on the floor. "The death of a whore," she says. "Cancer, my love." These words are repeated in a soft chant as Huppert walks toward the white light, and they sound rather prettier in French than they would translate into English. In this final scene, words, light, color and movement come together into an overwhelming vision of extinction and nothingness, and we feel Merteuil's horror at the bodily separation from Valmont, the man she loves, an extremely unexpected conclusion, but one that has been carefully prepared for throughout the performance. Some might find Quartett too cerebral, too meticulously thought-out, to be moving on a basic level, but I know that the way Huppert moved toward that white light and repeatedly intoned Müller's harsh words is one of the moments of my theatergoing experience that I'm likely to remember.

(photo credit: Pascal Victor)