So de Sade About Us
There’s a lot of bump and grind going on in the Cx & Company double bill of Heiner Müller’s Medeamaterial and Quartet (Access Theater), mainly to the tunes of cultural dissolution and autodestruction. No surprise there, of course, considering that Müller, of all the postwar European playwrights, perhaps had the most to say about the ways civilized, technocratic society can literally fuck itself to death. Nor is it surprising that Müller’s multilayered texts—by turns explosively carnal and Germanically dense—should have such an appeal to the young director-performer Cradeaux Alexander, a downtown bad boy with a bee in his bonnet about sexual repression and gender reversal.
In Quartet, we’re treated to a vastly refined, truncated version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by way of Genet, Nietzsche, and the Marquis de Sade. Valmont and Merteuil—alone, maybe at the end of the world—feed on each other’s erotic, often sadistic, fantasies and plot the sexual downfall of a virtuous couple who may or may not exist. (Themselves?) If it sounds even remotely like the stuff of a French novel, that’s about where the likeness ends: Müller’s play elicits the sort of existential anguish more characteristic of the 20th century than the 18th, and in its more highly, if obtusely, suggestive moments, gives off the stench of nuclear devastation. “Drawing room before the French Revolution,” begins Müller’s sole set description, promptly followed by: “Air raid shelter after World War III.”
Not that this poetic head-scratcher fazes Alexander and his able cast. Strutting and striding across a sparsely decorated stage, the actors seem to have a ball discovering frolicsome situations in which to pet, fondle, and spank one another, all while purring their lines into a series of microphones set around the stage floor. In a characteristically bold move, Alexander ups the ante considerably, if problematically, by adding two additional actors to the mix, effectively doubling the roles of Valmont and Merteuil. This affords the play some momentary, albeit potentially confusing, resonance—particularly when roles and genders begin to be exchanged freely. But for the most part it gives everyone an opportunity for even further sexual experimentation: man with woman, woman with woman, man with man, in nearly endless variations.
Where Quartet is spry, even jaunty, in its grim prognosis of the intersection of sex and instrumental rationality, Medeamaterial—mainly a lengthy monologue culled from Euripides—comes off as simply grim. Scantily clad in red chiffon, Alexander himself takes on the role of Medea, maybe the ultimate attempt at gender-bending. But while he’s a remarkably assured performer in his own right, you can’t help thinking he’s exploited various sexual hang-ups at the expense of understanding them. —Jeffrey Bivens
Simon Russell Beale’s New Hamlet. Sorta.
London—While tourists are scarce, London mayor Ken Livingston has been following the precedent Rudy Giuliani set in post September 11 New York City. He’s helping make theater tickets available to locals and promoting theater as the place for citizens to gather. In other ride-out-the-storm maneuvers, indigenous producers are playing it safe with (rather smart) revivals of tested properties, like South Pacific, Noël Coward’s Private Lives, and Peter Nichols’s Privates on Parade. Nevertheless, the city remains a tryout town for Manhattan. American moneybags are flocking to The Play What I Wrote, a revue with a twist about comedians Eric Morecambe and Ernest Wise, who had the country doubled over in the ’70s with their television appearances. The twist is that Hamish McColl and Sean Foley, sometimes known as the lampooning duo the Right Size, play themselves putting on a revue about Morecambe and Wise.
It’s a conceit more easily grasped in the seeing than the telling, but basically the lanky pair, along with short, dour Toby Jones, show off their comic grace and verbal dexterity in a series of nonsensical sketches written by Eric-&-Ernie retainer Eddie Braben. The one that takes place during the French Revolution calls for a guest star. The night I was there, Maureen Lipman, another household name here, was an imperious good sport about being the butt of the Bastille pratfalls humor. The entire enterprise, directed with precision by Kenneth Branagh, keeps the patrons laughing as old burlesque jokes are refreshed. By the end, though, it feels like nothing more than a TV variety hour.
More provocative is Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy. A contemporary variation on Hamlet directed by John Caird, the comedy-drama concerns Felix Humble (the versatile, shambling Simon Russell Beale), a gifted physics student returned home to learn that his mother, Flora, is to marry her dead husband’s best friend, George Pye. Also hanging about the terraced garden where the action takes place (splendid design by Tim Hatley) is the best friend’s daughter, Rosie. Felix dumped her years before without realizing they were about to become parents. (Together they’re Humble-Pye.) Felix’s dilemmas are manifold: how to prevent the nuptials, how to repair the damage caused Rosie and her daughter, how to deal with a ghostly beekeeper, how to stop the bee-like buzzing in his head. His inertia, as differentiated from Hamlet’s in this piece of adroitly Chekhov-ized Shakespeare, stems from his inability to take responsibility for his half-baked life. Jones sees him to eventual action in scenes where disturbed but intelligent characters movingly confront one another while deciding whether to be or not to be. To be shipped abroad, though, one hopes. —David Finkle