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By Heiner Müller
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn

During Heiner Müller’s lifetime, Quartet, his dramatic adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was his most popular and frequently produced play. You’d never understand why from the way Robert Wilson stages it, though. Wilson takes an already complex and confusing text and renders it utterly baffling to those who haven’t read it, overlaying a mise en scène in his trademark mannerist style that essentially disregards the action indicated by the words. The play, set cryptically in both a salon before the French Revolution and a bunker after World War III, is about two bored French aristocrats who plot to seduce an innocent virgin and a loyal wife, and who speak about that in sexually frank language reminiscent of Marquis de Sade. The playacting of these two (who play four) is the crux of the action, but the transitions and situations aren’t readily clear, so a director can help out a great deal if he wants to.

Wilson doesn’t want to. He prefers to challenge the primacy of Müller’s words in postmodern fashion, treating them as decoration for his stage pictures—which wouldn’t be at all surprising if this were his first stab at this text. In fact, Wilson first staged Quartet at ART in Cambridge, MA, in 1988, with Lucinda Childs, Bill Moor and a three-member chorus. Evidently, he was never quite satisfied with that version, which was extremely literal in its effort to illustrate all the playacting. In this new production starring Isabelle Huppert, Ariel Garcia Valdès and a three-member chorus, the main set pieces (a long thin table and angular chairs, a diagonal scrim, a spinning disk center stage) as well as much of physical movement are the same as in 1988, but the action is busier and more obscure. It’s busier in that it’s now sprinkled with lots of pseudo-silly effects such as actors growling like animals and gesturing with their hands to extinguish spotlights. And it’s more obscure in that there is now no effort whatsoever to illustrate any of the roleplaying described by the author. Strangely, Wilson has labored to make the show both more fun and popular and more forbiddingly abstruse at the same time. Make sense who may, as Beckett once said. Almost everyone around me was grumbling unhappily as they left the theater.

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