Duett – inspired by Heiner Müller’s “Quartett” and Søren Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or” – Concocted by Amy Stebbins – At the Loeb Ex (A.R.T.), Cambridge

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translated from the German by John-Henry Nijenhaus and Amy Stebbins
concocted by Amy Stebbins
starring Catrin Lloyd-Bollard as the Marquise de Merteuil and Dan Pecci as the Vicomte de Valmont.

Amy Stebbins explicitly recommended a stiff drink as preparation for her hour-long entertainment, Duett, which is derived from Heiner Müller’s Quartett, which in itself is derived from Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereux. Unfortunately there was no time for this, as I rushed straight from a brilliant performance of early cello works by Beethoven, and all I managed was a light dinner and a couple of glasses of wine. This was not enough to wipe out any culture shock I may have experienced after Beethoven’s rumbustious high spirits and supremely intelligent wit, but that certainly didn’t stop me from enjoying Duett. Perhaps a certain amount of culture shock is in order, perhaps even necessary, for our encounter with Laclos’s, Müller’s, and Stebbins’ very badly behaved aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. Then, it occurred to me that Beethoven’s world was not so distant from Laclos’ after all, nor is his early chamber music particularly well-behaved. Beethoven composed and performed it in 1796 and 1797, while poor Laclos struggled unsuccessfully to find employment outside the military, meanwhile working on his invention of the modern artillery shell. A few years ago I heard a concert at Williams in which Beethoven’s Septet was combined with the sanctified music of New England in the same period. It struck me that Beethoven’s raw energy and Luciferian wit would have seemed devilish to the god-fearing Calvinists, and indeed rather frightening. Duett is full of its own kind of energy, but not the energy of the Enlightenment, rather the violent energy of our own time, when it seems natural enough for a bit of bedroom naughtiness to yield buckets of gore, as if we were in the streets of Baghdad or Teheran. Or does it?

In Duett, it’s clear enough that the injurious words and actions stem mostly from pure animal meanness and the rage that comes on people “wenn sie alles dürfen darfen,” as Brecht expressed it in his book for Mahagonny. Just like spoiled children, the Marquise and the Vicomte are infuriated by the scope offered by their position and fortune, bored all the while. Their repeated enquiries, “who is the lucky one tonight” become quite chilling, as our sense of the cold objectivity of their desires ripens in us.

The production is played out against two facing white walls, which through most of the performance function as screens for projections, mostly bland and white silent footage of street scenes. The walls also function like the walls of a squash court as the protagonists hurl themselves and each other at them. They also have sex against them and eventually bleed all over them. There is also a disturbing and funny animated line drawing of a fat man wearing only a hat. This singularly unappealing blob also becomes an object of physical exploration. This physical exploration doesn’t stop there. The Marquis and the Vicomte repeatedly regale each other with the invitation, “Eat my shit,” in various modulations of tone and mood. In fact they never have a particularly good time in all this, and their sense of humor is lacking. It’s not my idea of a good time, either, but I could enjoy some laughs, because Ms. Stebbins and her colleagues, especially the Marquise, Catrin Lloyd-Bollard, are generously endowed with a sense of comedy. It was interesting that different sections of the audience laughed at different things, sometimes infecting other groups, sometimes laughing alone.

The specificity and grotesquery of costume, attribute, and movement in a deliberately non-existent (or hidden) absurdist context readily recalls the work of Richard Foreman, but Amy Stebbins’ cast of mind is quite different. Beginning with a basic model, she went her own way. Also there was a story—the familiar story of Les Liaisons—however fragmentary its presentation may have been. Its structure was neither logical nor chronological; that stemmed mainly from the physical state of the performers.. The play ended, when they became exhausted—an entropic concept which points to the kind of reality Amy Stebbins set out to create. The youthful cast, for that matter, deserve our admiration for their stamina in the face of the extreme demands of the action. Their reward, I understand, was bruises. Amy Stebbins reported that the last performance was the most successful, partly because the actors didn’t avoid bruising themselves, because they knew that these would be the last. The other reason was the fact that the particular variety of stage blood employed that evening turned out to be brown, blending two of the play’s biological images and creating the impression that the Marquise and the Vicomte had been rolling about in their own fecal matter.

The two protagonists shared the stage every now and then with silent actors, mostly in the guise of waiters and servants, who have no reason to exist beyond impersonally satisfying their masters’ needs. Ben Clark, who was filling in for Stephen DeMarco at short notice that evening sported an hilarious hang-dog expression that served him well throughout the play. Catrin Lloyd-Bollard was absolutely spot-on in all of her many guises. Her basic costume consisted of a circus acrobat’s costume with a scraggy pink tutu and red tights with white polka dots. When her Marquise persona came front and center, she slipped over a long dress or skirt. She had all the energy, movement and dance skills to do what she needed to do in the physically taxing roles, when stretched from pert chambermaid to marquise to raging beast. He command of diction and inflection was also impressive. Dan Pecci was perhaps less successful in putting aside his own, readily identifiable appearence and manner. His voice also sounded a little young for the Vicomte’s jaded utterances, but perhaps this was intended, since his preppy intonations hinted at the present-day malaise which makes Les Liaisons Dangereuses and its issues vital for folks under thirty.

The staging was full of striking visual effects, most of them executed with professional polish, for example a striking silhouette of Mr. Pecci. As I mentioned, the projections were neatly edited. Scenes like the one in which the couple speak into microphones behind lecterns and exchange voices were controlled and successful. Michael Einziger’s music was engulfing and brutal, thoroughly effective in performance, but I can’t remember much about it, since it was wiped out of my mind by the brilliant playing of the Ensemble Micrologus, who played amorous songs and dances of the Italian Ars Nova at Emmanuel Church later that night. Not least they gave Amy Stebbins a chance to to have some fun…for what di she do the minute the curtain (figuratively) fell? The laundry!

Talent, imagination,wit, and courage were everywhere in this production. There is no doubt that Amy Stebbins, with all her impressive gifts, will prove a very welcome new figure in the theatrical world. Her next work should be even more impressive than this one.

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