Photo of Theatre de l’Atelier’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, presented at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photo by Gaspard Leclerc.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is in a limited run at Shakespeare Theater Company’s Lansburgh Theater – just five more performances after last night’s opening. One tonight, two each on Saturday and Sunday. It’s an import from Théâtre de l’Atelier in Paris, where it was directed by John Malkovitch… whose breakout role was as the lead opposite Glenn Close in the 1988 Hollywood movie. Unlike that version, this one is entirely in French and subtitled. Or super-titled, rather, since the captions are projected onto a spot above the stage.
It makes for a challenge if you’re not a fluent French speaker, and my wife mentioned what might be the most valuable thing I can impart to you if you’re going: wear your contacts. In your glasses you’ll have to move your head up and down to follow both the action and the text, rather than just moving your eyes.
In the interest of putting this review out in time for it to do you any good, I’ll be brief. [cue sighs of relief everywhere] The show is an imperfect but highly entertaining staging of the story. Some of the flaws are structural, others might be simply a matter of watching a captioned work.
We’ve got to believe that Valmont is hung up on Merteuil in such a way that he’ll jettison Tourvel. If we go purely by the text, with Merteuil asserting that Valmont does so out of concern of his reputation being harmed over others sneering at his relationship with Tourvel, then we would have needed to see that there’s anyone else aware of it beyond the three of them and Valmont’s aunt. I don’t think we see either well demonstrated, though perhaps that’s an issue of my being unable to see their affection demonstrated in their translated banter. Close and Malkovitch could get me with verbal subtlety in English back in 1988, an advantage Moulène and Landrein don’t have in French – through that’s my failure at language, not theirs.
Despite that, I found it well worth my time. When the show is lighter-hearted in the first act there’s a very enjoyable playfulness among the cast. Malkovitch stages the show with minimal set dressing and every actor waiting visibly on the sidelines for their turns. His director’s note says, “I realized I could stage this play based solely upon the emotions that the actors would bring to the text.” My wife’s response was “this statement makes me highly nervous, and you can quote me.” I’d say it was a net positive rather than a negative. She agreed, though I was more enamored of the pacing in the first half and we both wondered about our lack of bonding to the characters in the second. Language or production?
If you speak French and go – or went – I’d be curious to hear your reaction. To the rest of you, if you’re uncertain, I say go – flaws aside, this is a net positive and you have a limited chance to partake. If you’re going to opt to see something filled with non-local actors and which you could view a variation on via DVD, well, at least this has a significant difference in staging and is up-front about its misogyny and problematic gender relations.
Shakespeare Theatre Company presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses direct from the Théâtre de l’Atelier. December 6th through 9 at the Lansburgh, located at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004 . Closest Metro stop: Gallery Place/Chinatown (Red/Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-547-1122.