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11/17/09
Avant-Garde in the City – Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Mikel Rouse
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Robert Wilson’s brand of theater art was seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as early as 1969.  Forty years after his debut there, Wilson’s work returned to BAM this month with a vivid of Heiner Muller’s Quartett, a 1981 reworking of the 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses.  It opens with an almost 10-minute long tableau that introduces all five characters—Muller’s play calls for only two actors, but Wilson, like when he first staged the work back in 1988, adds three other actors who don’t speak—followed by the Marquise de Merteuil (played by Isabelle Huppert) reciting in breakneck speed (and in French!) what sounds like a letter to her former lover, Valmont (Ariel Garcia Valdes).

Quartett at BAMThe rest of the play unfolds with Wilson’s now-familiar design: minimal sets, a few Parzival Chairs, some sleek, Samurai-esque costumes, and intense, deeply hued lighting changes.  The one person who looks as if she didn’t step out of one of Wilson’s opera productions is Huppert’s Merteuil, who sports a purple, off-the-shoulder gown and a tilted bee-hive that makes her look like Jane Jetson’s kinky, older sister.

She is, in a word, mesmerizing.  Her posture and gestures alone command the audience’s attention; but it is her face—in particular, her eyes—that seem like they are eternally in a cinematic close up—regardless of where you’re sitting in BAM’s Harvey Theatre.  Her last appearance on American stages, was when she toured with a version of Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychose.  In that show, she stood still for two straight hours.  In Quartett, performing Wilson’s signature slow, deliberate motions, Huppert looks composed but makes you feel as if she’s improvising wildly on-the-spot.

Underscoring Huppert’s grace is Wilson’s longtime musical collaborator, Michael Galasso, whose mix of jarring hip-hop beats and languid, courtly string melodies are heard throughout.  These sounds and the Wilson’s visuals are now almost familiar and quaint, yet the impact of Huppert’s performance—as well as the impact of the whole piece—feel fresh and exhilarating.

Like Wilson at BAM, Richard Foreman was a regular presence at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre back in the early 1980’s.  Also like Wilson, Foreman’s unique brand of theater can look and sound virtually the same regardless of the title or subject.

William Dafoe in Idiot SavantIdiot Savant, Foreman’s latest play, returns him to the Public after an absence of 20 years.  It has all the trademarks of his recent work at the Ontological Theater in the East Village (the site of most of Foreman’s productions) except the presence of William Defoe in the lead role.  Unlike Huppert, whose Gallic, slow-burn moxie, brings a new kick to Wilson’s style; Defoe impresses in Idiot Savant by completely immersing himself in Foreman’s technique.  Perhaps it was all his time with the Wooster Group, but watching this 80-minute absurdist drama, you’d swear Defoe had been part of Foreman’s troupe for decades.

The actor, like his two female co-stars (Alenka Kraigher and Elina Lowensohn) share the right balance of exuberant deadpan.  Foreman’s play (which includes a giant, god-like Duck, plus lots of buzzers and ringing phones) is—in the sense that it “is” about anything—about the illusions we allow ourselves to believe in.  Throughout the play, Foreman’s voice booms over the God-Mic: “Message to the performers: You have been tricked again.”  Impatient theatergoers expecting a star-turn may themselves feel tricked (read the comments after Ben Brantley’s review) but Foreman’s fun-house is hardly radical—it’s just good, old-fashioned downtown modernism.

One other avant-garde figure to make a welcome return recently was Mikel Rouse, who’s latest work was seen and heard for one-night at the new Galapagos art space in DUMBO.  Rouse’s operatic works, Failing Kansas, Dennis Cleveland, and The End of Cinematics, were seen around town a few years back, but in recent seasons, he’s been touring with those large-scale theater-pieces across the continent.  His latest, Gravity Radio, mixes news wire feeds (read with ram-rod straight, just-the facts conviction by actress Veanne Cox) and jaunty, melancholy songs of love.  This “unplugged” version was captivating, but it whet the appetite for one of Rouse’s full-blown stagings—hopefully to be experienced at a familiar theater soon.

Images: (top)  Isabelle Huppert and Ariel Garcia Valdes in Quaretett at BAM, photo by Stephanie Berger, (bottom) William Dafoe in Idiot Savant, photo by Joan Marcus.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.