by Lynn on January 15, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Photo by Michael Cooper: l-r: Silvae Mercedes, Sebastian Marziali

Live and in person, presented by Other Hearts in association with VideoCabaret, at VideoCabaret, 10 Busy Street, Toronto, Ont. Plays until Jan 21, 2024.

Written by Heiner Muller

Translated by Marc Von Henning

Directed by Harri Thomas

Set and costumes by Eija Loponen Stephenson

Cast: Sebastian Marziali

Silvae Mercedes

Bold, challenging, raw and creative.

I can’t remember another time when the audience was as well taken care of as Other Hearts Collective takes care of their audience for Quartet. We are warmly greeted at the door and our name is checked off a list. We can read the copy of the programme that is laid out on a table or we can take a photo of the QR code and download it to our device. We are told when we will be allowed into the theatre and when the show will start after that and how long the performance is and there is no intermission. There are content warnings that are delivered carefully: Explicit Images, simulated sex and kink, violent and sexually explicit language, simulated blood, flashing lights, references to death/sickness/suicide. Pornography is mentioned. We are invited to explore the set by Eija Loponen Stephenson because it’s also an art instillation. The audience knows exactly what they are to see. No one has blundered here by mistake looking for 42nd Street.

Quartet is a play written in 1980 by Heiner Muller and inspired by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses (first published in 1782). As the play information for Quarter states: “in a space that is equal parts “a drawing room before the French Revolution/ an air raid shelter after WWIII, two people remain: the Marquise de Merteuil (M) and the Vicomte de Valmont (V).”

In Les Liaisons Dangereuses the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are two amoral lovers-turned-rivals who amuse themselves by ruining others through sex and manipulative games and who ultimately destroy each other.

The audience sits on either side of the playing space. The whole room is ‘curated’/designed with video screens around the room so the audience can always see what is being live streamed. There are video cameras, sound machines and recording devices that the actors operate. Opaque plastic sheets encase the room, and sometimes act as clever costumes. There are mannequins, some with dildoes attached, in various spaces. S & M gear is arranged around the room. An old-fashioned bath tub filled with swaths of plastic sheeting is at one end of the room. Stuff to observe and look at are scattered around the space.

When the production starts, the plastic sheeting in the tub is rustled, moves and then reveals Merteuil (Silvae Mercedes-she/they). She breathes with the aid of an oxygen mask attached by a tube to a canister. She slowly gets out of the tub—she wears a flimsy ‘negligée’ revealing she wears panties but is topless. She slowly walks to a side of the space, hauling her canister after her, where she binds her bare breasts with lengths of narrow material that she wraps around her.

When she returns to the tub and settles into it, it seems as if she deliberately removes the oxygen mask and gasps for air. At this moment Valmont (Sebastian Marziali – they/them)) bursts into the room (taking off their coat) and tends to the gasping Merteuil by putting on her oxygen mask, saving her.

Valmont dressed as Merteuil is—briefs and there is binding with the same narrow strips of material around their upper body but under their bare pecs. What follows are games of seduction, manipulation, flirtation, role-playing and reversal role-playing in which both switch roles, or voice other characters.  Silvae Mercedes as Merteuil and Sebastian Marziali as Valmont, are measured and tempered in their delivery, each toying with the other, each getting an upper hand only to loose it subtly later.

By having both characters dress the same director Harri Thomas is exploring gender-fluidity. One wonders of Merteuil and Valmont are the same person from different points of view and the views get blurred. That adds a depth of inquiry to a play that is challenging on its own.

Playwright Heiner Mueller’s language, with thanks to translator Marc Von Henning, is poetic, esoteric, dense, obtuse, obscure and fascinating.   The result is a kinky, pornographic, raunchy look into a dark world of sexual games-playing, that occasionally seems a bit boring with the effort to be provocative.

What is never in question is director Harri Thomas’s inventive, creative mind to establish startling images (along with designer Eija Loponen Stephenson) that are beautiful and arresting. Not for all tastes, but thought-provoking all the same.

Other Hearts in association with VideoCabaret present:

Plays until Jan. 21, 2024.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

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