Over the course of a 40-year career, Robert Wilson’s directorial techniques have grown so influential that they now risk appearing outmoded. Indeed, his production of Heiner Müller’s Quartett, which he has revived for BAM’s New Wave Festival, has all the familiar Wilson stylistic features: sculptural gestures, inventive props, a dearth of animal passion, and an excess of light and sound cues. Müller’s text reduces Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th-century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses, to just 12 pages, distilling all the amours and intrigues into a psychosexual pas de deux between the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. Wilson expands those 12 pages into 90 minutes, adding three non-speaking actors—an elderly man and two nubile youths.
Originally produced in 1987, Quartett now seems poised somewhere between a pinnacle of the theatrical avant-garde and a parody of it. Fortunately, this incarnation boasts Isabelle Huppert, an actress of remarkable rigor, in the role of Merteuil. Huppert manages to appear imperious even in a hairstyle that looks as if a large dollop of pastry cream has affixed itself to her head. Elegant and terrifying in a long purple gown, she succeeds in making Müller and Wilson’s liaison appear newly dangerous.