Cambridge

Robert Wilson, Quartet

American Repertory Theatre

In director Robert Wilson’s theater works, the visual mise-en-scène and the music and/or text have always operated on two parallel tracks; each has demanded equal, split attention from the viewer. The general idea seems to have been inspired by Merce Cunningham’s separation of music and dance, and, in plays like I Was Sitting On My Patio . . . , 1977, the actual practice drew on the little-known plays of Gertrude Stein. Beginning with Hamletmachine, 1985, however, Wilson has collaborated with German playwright Heiner Müller, whose literary style more closely matches Wilson’s visual sensibility, one that combines refined abstraction with quirky representational particulars. In Quartet, a condensed adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century epistolary novel about innocence and evil in the war between the sexes, Müller’s text provided the first major verbal platform that fully complemented Wilson’s heavyweight visual design and staging. The result was something more nearly like a “play” than anything Wilson has ever created, complete with psychologically rooted characters, a story line (the sexual seduction of an innocent to prove a philosophical point), allusions to other theater (especially Jean Genet’s The Maids in its explicit sexual role-playing), and a Big Theme: power games between the sexes. As all-out drama, Quartet was stunning, turning its difficult, theoretical conceit into an authentic theatrical experience.

As if confirming the potency and sweep of Müller’s compressed script—a series of run-on dramatic monologues by the two principal characters, Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil—Wilson’s lighting, always an act in itself, was more multihued and more active than ever before. While still using light to establish playing space (via scrims, broad triangular pools, and isolated spots), Wilson bathed the trompe l’oeil side curtains in shades of lurid red to establish an erotic frame, and the backdrop and much of the stage in rich tones of deep blue and lush orange to color the play’s activity with a paradoxical aura of cool sensuality (they also alluded to time—day and night). Makeup and costumes followed suit, with Valmont dressed all in red and the Marquise in a purple gown echoed by purple slashes on her ultra-white cheeks.

The performances were eerie, even spectral. As the Marquise, choreographer-dancer Lucinda Childs created a chilling portrait of a cynical superwoman with a formal, stylized body language that barely controlled the seething energy underneath. Valmont (Jeremy Geidt) was an angst-ridden philosophe, alternately pontifical, zombielike, and animalistic, occasionally dropping down to all fours to crawl around, growling. (Three other minor characters—a Young Woman, a Young Man, and an Old Man—appeared in a tableau prologue and at intervals throughout the play, standing in for other ages of the two principals and occasionally representing secondary figures.)

In unfolding and articulating Quartet’s heated-up Baroque story, Wilson not only presented more characterization and narrative than usual but also injected a fair amount of humor into the production. In one of the work’s eight vignettelike scenes, the Marquise switched to a Texas accent while chewing gum and wielding a handgun; at other moments, men rubbed their crotches, a noose dropped from the flies to “hang” Valmont upside down by one leg, and the innocent “niece” waxed lascivious by writhing onstage and turning a coatsleeve into a phallic puppet. This humor, along with the visual puns and almost slapstick pranks, set off Quartet’s generally dense, funereal atmosphere, just as in more traditional drama. That director/lighting-and-set-designer Wilson has so expanded his singular vocabulary made this production’s chamber-size scale (two hours in length, a five-person cast) seem like an epic adventure, albeit one in which the action was persuasively conceptual. Like the amusing yet deadly games of amorous intrigue sketched out in its original source, Quartet was a deceptively sly, moving meditation on mortality.

John Howell