Saturday, November 04, 2006

Crawling back into dilettantism

Yikes, vacation sure can take its toll on a blog, though it's also great to leave the web alone for a while. A few thoughts to wrap up the French trip, which was lighter on the gulcher than usual (though I'd certainly include watching Over the Hedge, which includes a brilliant voice-over performance by Steve Carell, on video).

I suppose the main event was seeing Heiner Müller's Quartett, which I've alluded to before. The text is based on Laclos' Liaisons dangereuses, which Müller has boiled down to its two key characters, Valmont and Merteuil, and to a dozen incredibly dense pages. I'd love to see it again in a production emphatically not by Robert Wilson, whose formula just feels tired and mercenary at this point—mercenary because based on the past five-six shows by him I've seen, he now applies the same predictable boilerplate tricks to whatever he's meant to stage at one of the many international houses of culture that inexplicably keep on hiring him. In the case of this Quartett, Wilson incorporated elements from two of his own previous stagings. From the 1988 New York production, for instance, we seemed to inherit the three extra characters—including an old man—and a prologue of a sort in which the actors seat at a banquet table.

While Wilson had Lucinda Childs as Merteuil back then, we had Isabelle Huppert, who was the show's main draw. The command she had over the technical aspects of her performance was astonishing, something that was obvious from her first line, which she repeated over and over with barely perceptible variations in speed and pitch, incongruously—and somehow convincingly—sounding like a spoken version of a Philip Glass piece. It's hard to talk about anything that's not purely technical when referring to actors in a Wilson piece anyway, because to him they are nothing more than elements in his visual compositions, no more or less important than the lighting, costumes or set. No wonder he makes them move slowly and adopt dramatically geometric gestures: The only obviously human component he allows them is speech (and in this case not even to all of them—of the five people onstage in this Quartett, three remain silent). In his notes on the show, Wilson explains that "en 35 ou 38 ans de travail, je n'ai pas une seule fois dit à un comédien ce qu'il devait penser en termes de texte, de sentiment, d'émotion." ("In a 35- or 38-year career, I've never once told an actor what he should think in terms of text, feeling, emotion.")

I don't actually have a problem with that approach, except that to make an impact, you need to deliver superb visuals and topnotch sound design. Alas, Wilson's well seems to have gone dry: At times Quartett felt dated, at others slightly ridiculous (and let's charitably ignore the attempts at humor). I'd be curious to see how long Wilson can continue to coast on two blue spotlights and three red frocks.

No comments: