Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Christopher Hampton’s eventual theatrical translation, mine the lives of the French idle rich for drama and moral insight, presenting a twisted cautionary tale of seduction and doomed love.
Shakespeare Theater plays host to John Malkovich’s fierce, stirring rendition of the classic drama, showcasing a young cast, judiciously applied modern touches, and vivid sexuality to assert that “Vanity and happiness are incompatible.”
The play explores a dangerous game of seduction between the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, a pair of brash young French nobles with too much money and time on their hands. The talented duo of Yannik Landrein and Julie Moulier imbue the pair of schemers with swaggering charm and smirking disdain. The Vicomte and the Marquise are friends and former lovers, bound by an adversarial respect and palpable sexual tension. Landrein and Moulier’s deep chemistry keeps the audience on their seat, wondering if the two may come to blows or succumb to deep seated longing at any second.
To amuse themselves and subtly prove to their own cynical hearts that love is farce, the duo begin romantic pursuits predicated on revenge and mutual competition. Vicomte and Marquise leave a swath of deception and cruelty, ignoring the emotional damage to all those caught in their wake. Lazare Herson-Macarel keeps the action moving briskly along as the Puckish master of ceremonies Azolan. The affable Herson-Macarel exists somewhere outside the main action, joking with characters offstage and intermittently advancing the plot by pounding his staff at random on the stage. He buoys the sinister machinations of the two main characters with good natured mumblings and impish gestures.
The central pair mingles with their friends and targets within a series of lush estates. The time period of Malkovich’s production hovers somewhere between 18th Century and modern day France, with corsets and wax sealed letters coexisting peacefully alongside jeans and iPhones. Men pair long, swooping capes with 5th Avenue brands, while women wear wooden ribs on top of pants and blouses to simulate a hoop skirt without sacrificing freedom of movement. This chronological tug of war lends the play a distinctive past/present hybrid look, which separates it from more traditional mountings of de Laclos’ French period drama.
Within their twisted world of money and power, the Vicomte and the Marquise plot in secret as their fellow actors watch from the sidelines, biding their time to step into the spotlight. The stage has the feel of a cabaret, as randomly arranged performers cycle in and out of the performance space and blur the borders. Actors remain in character on the fringes of the stage, blissfully unaware of deceptions occurring right in front of their eyes, albeit through an imaginary curtain.
The evolving relationship between Vicomte and his romantic mark, the virtuous (and married) Madame de Tourvel, provides the play’s most compelling drama. Jina Djemba brings much needed sincerity to the cynical tale with her splendid rendering of the lovestruck Madame. She valiantly resists the Vicomte’s cunning advances, putting on a clinic of restrained emotion. Only her expressive eyes betray love blooming behind her trepidation. The growing bond between Vicomte and de Tourvel plays out like a chess match wherein only one player knows the rules, and the other is left to guess.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Closed December 9, 2012
The Théâtre de l’Atelier production
Presented by Shakespeare Theatre
450 7th Street NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Nicolas Errèra’s prerecorded musical score bears mention due to its role in the Vicomte and de Tourvel encounters. Wherever the two characters discuss their forbidden love, Errèra lets loose an intermittent crescendo of strings to up the tension. Aside from the final confrontation, the rest of the play operates largely without accompaniment, and the sudden shift to symphonic backdrop can be jarring. However, despite the disjointed transitions, Errèra’s tense brace of cellos and violins lends the stripped down production an aura of compelling, operatic drama.
The duplicitous efforts of the Vicomte and Marquise soon spiral tragically out of control, proving that not even their calculating minds can predict the mysteries of the heart. The final scenes put an exclamation point on Malkovich’s bold vision, combining clever staging with muscular fight direction by Francois Rostain and striking lighting design by Christophe Grelié. The disparity in the characters’ final perceptions of the Vicomte and Marquise’s actions offer some distressing Scarlet-Letter like insights into French gender politics, but that falls squarely upon Laclos’ shoulders.
Malkovich’s production is a powerful piece of theater that strips away the dowdy trappings of the French aristocracy to get at the raw emotion surging beneath the surface. The addition of iPhones and modern dress may seem tacked on at certain junctures, but the vibrant script bridges the gap between the Ancien Règime and today’s wired, overstimulated generation.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses . By Pierre Choderlos de Laclos . Adapted for the Stage by Christopher Hampton . Translated in French by Fanette Barraya . Directed by John Malkovich . Produced by Laura Pels, John Malkovich, Marie-Laure Munich, and Jean-Marc Ghanassia . Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Ben Demers