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Reviewed by:
  • Quartet
  • Carl Weber
Quartet. By Heiner Müller. Wilma Theater, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 24 March 1996.

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Figure 1.

The Vicomte de Valmont (Pearce Bunting) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Janis Dardaris) in the Wilma Theater’s production of Heiner Muller’s Quartet, directed by Blanka Zizka. Photo: George Golem.

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Figure 2.

The Vicomte de Valmont (Pearce Bunting) in the Wilma Theater’s production of Heiner Muller’s Quartet, directed by Blanka Zizka. Photo: George Golem.

Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater had a resounding success last season with Road, Jim Cartwright’s relentless exposure of working class life in “Thatcherized” Britain. Director Blanka Zizka’s production garnered a number of local awards and was invited to the 1995 Czech Divadlo International Festival. Zizka, who is also the company’s artistic director, decided to dare her audience even more boldly this season by staging Heiner Müller’s Quartet, an adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. This marks only the third American production of the play to date, following earlier stagings by New York’s Theatre for the New City and by Robert Wilson for the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA. Inspiring a heated and prolonged debate in the Philadelphia press among both critics and audience members, the Wilma’s production of Quartet appears to have achieved what Müller himself defined as the essential task of theatre, which is to split the audience with performances that don’t merely please but deliberately unsettle.

Zizka and her artistic team confronted this dense text from two quite different directions. On the one hand, they utilized the American actors’ familiar methods of improvisation and psychological motivation of character and plot. On the other, they investigated the formal structure of the text “like practicing Bach’s octaves on the piano, repetitively,” [End Page 377] according to Zizka. This painstaking process mobilized the actors’ expertise in creating coherent, psychologically grounded characters and yielded striking behavioral patterns that exhibited the despair, depravity, and sexual humiliation the protagonists explore up to and beyond the edge of physical annihilation. Their careful scrutiny of the verbal “score,” on the other hand, resulted in a transparent rendering of Müller’s language—which is as complex as it is poetic, rooted in the mannered syntax and convoluted reasoning fostered by eighteenth-century culture and letters.

The performance begins in utter blackness, enhanced by faint noises of stirred water. The lights slowly come up to reveal a luxurious space where several levels of blue green marble, surrounding an oval sunken bath, ascend to a huge gold-framed mirror that dominates the stage. A nude woman is discovered who appears to be masturbating in her bath water while daydreaming about Valmont, a former lover. After the apparent orgasm we realize that we have witnessed a game: Merteuil indulging her fantasy of things past and, probably, lost forever. Enter Valmont, a strong masculine presence, immediately trying to claim and dominate the space but quickly deflated by Merteuil’s scathing verbal parries.

This scene precisely sets the tone for the performance: it will be about procured and frustrated sexual craving, rampant sensuality, seduction, aggrandizement as well as debasement of the self, and the vicious games played by those who are dying from the ennui of their useless existence. The actors trace each step of these dangerous games with the utmost physical and psychological candor. In the early scenes of the play, Janis Dardaris (Merteuil) and Pearce Bunting (Valmont) seem to lack a certain trust in the text; they seem to be trying to enforce the audience’s attention by pushing and embellishing their vocal delivery and what feels like excessive movement and stage business. But soon both actors hit their stride and embark upon a veritable tour de force. The performance’s most striking moments occur when Merteuil and Valmont assume the roles of their prospective victims, virtuous Madame Tourvel and innocent virgin Volange. At that point the actors’ enjoyment of Müller’s playfulness and the mind games of his characters becomes palpable.

At the beginning of the last scene, when Valmont again assumes the role...

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pp. 377-379
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