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The Understudy

Quartett

Isabelle Huppert gives a bravura performance in Robert Wilson's visually stunning if somewhat predictable staging of Heiner Müller's play.

By New York City
Isabelle Huppert and Ariel Garcia Valdes
in Quartett
(© Pascal Victor)
Isabelle Huppert and Ariel Garcia Valdes
in Quartett
(© Pascal Victor)
Isabelle Huppert, one of the world's great actors of stage and screen, has briefly come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in director Robert Wilson's production of Heiner Müller's Quartett, a deconstruction of the great 18th-century French novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Those who are familiar with Wilson know that star turns are not a regular feature of his work; actors more or less do what they're told. But Huppert manages to work within Wilson's strong ensemble of five actors, and, simultaneously, to deliver one of the great bravura performances currently on the New York stage -- even if Wilson's staging of the play ultimately feels predictable and even boring.

We first see Huppert in an icy blue light, her feet gliding slowly across the stage, her hands gesticulating in their own forbidding, baffling language. A single sharp gesture gets tossed in the direction of an almost satirical Arcadian backdrop and the lights on that pastoral scene temporarily go out. As the 100 intermissionless minutes of Müller's play proceed, Huppert manages to infuse even seemingly arbitrary stage directions with power and meaning. And even when you don't understand what's going on (which can be frequently), you always get the sense that she does.

In Müller's flamboyantly blasphemous and delightfully vicious post-modern take on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' novel, the dramatis personae are reduced to the two notorious lead characters: the Marquise (Huppert) and her sometime lover, sometime rival, Valmont (the impressive Ariel Garcia Valdès). Wilson maintains the concept of the pair taking on other characters in the show (sometimes in cross-gendered fashion), but also adds three shadow figures: Rachel Eberhart and Benoît Maréchal are the two younger ones -- perhaps more innocent versions of the two leads, perhaps specters of those who become ensnared in their dangerous games -- and Louis Beyler is an older gentleman, who Wilson, at one time, suggested was Müller himself.

The entire company displays a sharp virtuosity; but at the end of the night, it's all about the images. Wilson is a visual artist, and nearly any tableaux from this production could be a stunning display in a modern art museum. They are often sumptuous to behold. But his aesthetic has become a bit of a self-parody: the Expressionist makeup and hair design (here credited to Luc Verschueren), the Brechtian gestures; the cool, almost passionless reading of explosive texts; the nods to classic Japanese theater conventions; and the Euro-rock score (here composed by Wilson's late, longtime collaborator, Michael Galasso) are all-too-familiar.

Unquestionably, Muller's work calls for a highly stylized interpretation. But a fresher, more unexpected, and more dangerous aesthetic than Wilson provides here would undoubtedly increase the impact of Quartett.


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