Friday, November 6, 2009

"Quartette" n'est pas "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"

Quartette is a play by Heiner Müller, in French with English supertitles projected above the BAM Harvey stage. It is allegedly based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although Müller admits he never finished the original novel when he wrote this play in 1980-1. Since I know the story, I didn’t think the supertitles would be necessary. As it happens, though, the production was “conceived and directed” by Robert Wilson. The result is, while somewhat linear, not a straight line. Or a single line. In fact I suspect many sections of the line were erased.

I spent far more time reading brief but repeated text than I had expected, although my ear picked up more of the French as the evening went on. As M said, this evening fulfilled my opera quota for the year. No, they weren’t singing. But Isabelle Huppert’s monologues and, for want of a better term, dialogue, were certainly arias, as were those of her male counterpart (in more ways than one), Ariel Garcia Valdès.

The opening drew us in with elements visually and aurally interesting. A scrim showed a landscape painting with somewhat clothed musicians in the foreground (Frans Wouters’ “Le Concert Champêtre”). Before it, Mlle. Huppert crossed the stage extremely slowly; an old man sat at the head of a table, a slim young woman with an exceptionally long braid bouncing along her back danced in giggling; and a young man entered, pointed his dancer foot at the old man, and “shot” him. Shortly after this, the old man took out a pistol and shot the young man. Visual and sound designs were sharp and engaging. We were in for a treat.

But soon the opening passed into the next staging, and the next. Not scenes, as such. Stagings. Watching Huppert, in her deep purple off-the-shoulder dress, very pale makeup, and distinct red lips, speak French exceedingly fast (but not so fast that we didn’t know she was repeating the same few lines over and over again) is really only fascinating for a little while. (It is entirely possible some heterosexual men and/or homosexual women will disagree with me on that point.) Apparently Mr. Wilson consistently has one of his characters appear in Kabuki style, and last night it was Valmont: a red devil of a creature, who was sometimes green, and once off white. His vocalizations sounded like those of someone using a machine to disguise his voice during a particularly loud obscene phone call.

In case you don’t know “LLD,” this story is about sex. Carnal, illicit, lusty, ex-marital, blackmailing, controlling sex. Huppert’s brash laugh was frequently followed by a wink to the audience or a long curling tongue. The play is filled with audacious images, quite a few of which are amusing and/or affecting. This to assure you I did enjoy some of the evening.

Huppert plays the Marquise de Merteuil (except when she appears to be playing Valmont), Valdès the Vicomte de Valmont (except when he appears to be playing Merteuil or Madame de Tourvel). Three other performers play with them – Louis Beyler, Rachel Eberhart, and Benoît Maréchal. These three people were welcome additions to the stage, but it is difficult to say who they played. One of the men is young, very fit, and presumably represents Danceny. The young woman is sometimes Cècile, the virginal convent-trained niece Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce, and sometimes Mme. de Tourvel, whom Valmont wishes to seduce. One of them is an old but remarkably spry man, and no one knows who he’s playing. He’s a hoot, out there dancing in his white nightshirt while men and women in black (a.k.a. stagehands) change the drapings and set pieces rather too often.

Mlle. Huppert and M. Valdès habitually looked anywhere but at each other. While each spoke to someone outside his or her line of sight, other characters would appear behind or beside them. Perhaps the young man, with a length of thick chain around his neck, grimacing as he pulled it tight. Perhaps the young woman, laughing delightedly, or looking at the young man when he was suspended upside down from a noose.

In the second half of the play, shouts of Vengeance! recurred. These came from Valmont when played by Valdès. And Merteuil spent more and more time in what appeared to be a bathtub. Perhaps. This is how I knew that Mr. Wilson, if not Mr. Müller, had a good idea of how the original story turned out in other dramatizations.

Luckily the sound design included the cracking of a stick somewhere offstage. Its repetition jolted me into wakefulness at regular intervals. I never completely nodded off, but it became increasingly difficult to focus my eyes, despite the vibrantly colored images appearing on the stage.

Not vibrantly colored but alive, a lonely fish traveled from stage left to stage right in a tall aquarium while Mlle. Huppert traversed the perpendicular upstage, repeating “the whore is dead” (in French, of course). The fish probably wondered why its sea was moving across its earth. It was seasick.

I have read Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Mille pardons, en anglais. I experienced Christopher Hampton’s play on Broadway with the delicious Alan Rickman as Valmont and Lindsay Duncan as Merteuil. I have seen four film versions of the story (only one in French, and two set in the time period of the novel). These are barely a dent in the number of adaptations of this novel out there, yet perhaps I should have left it at that. Productions like this one make me feel quite stupid. I feel sure, had I a bit more energy, I might have deciphered some of the symbolism Mr. Wilson presented, although I’m equally sure re-reading the novel would not have helped. Perhaps, to comprehend one work conceived and directed by Robert Wilson, one must have experienced the entire oeuvre. In which case, where (or when) is one supposed to start?

I feel downright déclassé, but I believe I would have enjoyed the Duplex Cabaret Gala far more.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Thanks for stopping by.

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