Court Theatre at the Museum of Contemprary Art

She’s all states, and all princes I; Nothing else is –John Donne, “The Sun Rising”

Heiner Muller was the very model of the intellectual trickster, exposing the hidden realities of classic texts by subverting, inverting, at times practically eviscerating them. In his brief, silent Medeaplay a woman is seduced, gives violent birth while restrained and gagged, and finally rips her baby to shreds while “debris, limbs, intestines fall” from above on her so-called lover. Muller’s was a theater of deconstructive cruelty where, as his translator Carl Weber notes (appropriating Muller’s own assessment of Pina Bausch), “The image is a thorn in our eye.”

His politics weren’t much different: a constant undermining of accepted texts.

Choosing to remain in East Germany when he had more than one chance to leave, Muller assumed leadership of Bertolt Brecht’s prestigious Berliner Ensemble and won the Lessing prize but also endured bouts of official proscription. His Stalinism discomfited the avant-garde while his avant-gardism upset the Stalinists. And the postunification discovery that he informed for the Stasi, Erich Honecker’s secret police, has only added to his mystique. (Though, truth be told, it seems as if everybody informed for the Stasi at some point or another. One pictures East German intellectual life as a kind of Feydeau farce for dialectical materialists–people always slipping out on their handlers to dally with that cute little essay by Herbert Marcuse.)

Quartet is Muller’s 1981 dissection of Les liaisons dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos’s late-18th-century epistolary novel, which was a succes de scandale in its own time and has inspired at least five movies in ours–including Cruel Intentions, a Reese Witherspoon vehicle set at a prep school. The essential situation is the same: a couple of aristocratic decadents, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, amuse themselves by betting on whether Valmont can take the virginity of Merteuil’s virtuous young niece. (As a side project, Valmont also pursues a married woman, Madame de Tourvel.) Where Cruel Intentions is framed as naturalistic drama, however, Muller’s adaptation is anything but. The foursome of his title is played as a violent, lascivious, occasionally comic pas de deux, with Merteuil and Valmont assuming every role–including each other’s.

Thus Muller makes their narcissism visually explicit. It envelops them entirely, conferring a debauched sort of transcendence in which lovers and victims–even Merteuil and Valmont–are only reflections of endless self-fascination. “Nothing else is.”

JoAnne Akalaitis’s Court Theatre production moves the action from Muller’s indeterminate “timespace”–described as a “drawing room before the French revolution/Air raid shelter after World War III”–to a conventional hotel room, creating a sense of confinement that intensifies the lovers’ egotistic dance and triggers some thrilling moments. Karen Kandel’s lithe, muscled body is well suited to Merteuil: she can handle any form of sexual insinuation–or aggression, for that matter–in either gender. Steven Rishard’s Valmont can be anything from a bestial rapist to a submissive awaiting instructions. His speech as the much-abused Madame de Tourvel is the apotheosis of the piece: a moral Escher print, damning and ennobling in a single schizophrenic gesture.

For all that speech’s power, however–and for all the superb stagecraft that Akalaitis, Kandel, and Rishard bring to the piece–I found myself detached from much of Quartet. It wasn’t a Brechtian alienation, though Akalaitis makes intense efforts to introduce great expanses of intellectual distance. It was disinterest. Ultimately Valmont and Merteuil inspired nothing so much as nostalgia. Were they meant to be seen as sexual revolutionaries, destroyed by the logic of their rebellion? No child of the 60s is unfamiliar with that trope. Were they analogues for the corruptions of privilege? Even more familiar. And passe to boot: in these first years of 21st-century America, the answer to the equation sex + power isn’t “indulgence”; it’s “commodification”–the industrialization of pleasure and procreation. This Quartet is energetic, and made intriguing by all the dramaturgic ambiguities Muller built into it. But what was once a thorn in the eye comes across now as a bit of dust from an old book.

When: Through 2/27: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 7:30 PM

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, theater, 220 E. Chicago

Price: $35-$50

Info: 773-753-4472

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.