Les Liaisons Dangereuses
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses," directed by John Malkovich, is a marvelous blending of past and present that tells the story of opulent French youth who are engaged in a perilous game of romance, deceit, manipulation.
The story revolves around the machinations of former lovers Vicomte de Valmont (Yannik Landrein) and Marquise de Merteuil (Julie Moulier). Both share a number of immoral characteristics, the prime ones being their penchant for the moral corruption and manipulation of others.
Marquise de Merteuil seeks the corruption of the virginal and innocent Cécile de Volanges (Agathe Le Bourdonnec) as revenge against a former lover by having Valmont seduce her. Meanwhile Valmont has made it his personal challenge to make the married and devout Madame de Tourvel (Jina Djemba) forsake the tenets of her faith and fall in love with him.
What results is an ever more tangled web of deceit in which no one can escape unscathed.
Although the play is entirely in French with English subtitles, there is no mistaking that there are ultimately three languages at work, the third being body language.
While body language is a required and expected part of an actor’s performance, the nature of this play brings it to the forefront. The cast has not only accepted the challenge, but has also excelled in its execution.
Landrein, in his role as Vicomte de Valmont, walks the line between villain and antihero with great skill and manages to exude an air of sexuality without becoming trite. At times humorous and at other times vile, Landrein’s portrayal of the character leaves the audience teetering on the brink of viewing Valmont as yet another flawed human being or a man beyond all hope of redemption.
At the same time, Moulier gives a magnificent performance as Merteuil. Moulier presents the full complexity of the character through both her lines and body language. Her walk exudes confidence and her demeanor is reminiscent to a lioness on the prowl that sees everything and everyone around as prey to be devoured.
The level of detail is evident in this production. Of particular note is the connection between Madame de Tourvel’s costume and her personal evolution.
In the beginning of the play, Tourvel is heavily and entirely dressed in white to represent her personal defenses, her commitment to her faith, and her devotion to her husband. As the play progresses, the layers are stripped away to reveal the bold red corset beneath which represents not only her heart, but also the emotions that she has seemingly buried beneath her devout persona.
In her final scene, Djemba’s emotional performance presents Tourvel without pretense as a woman who has opened her heart and soul to Valmont and has laid herself symbolically and literally bare before him.
Sex fills multiple roles in this play. In the world of Merteuil and Valmont, it is a poison used to pollute and corrupt the innocent and unsuspecting, a bargaining chip to be traded, and a means to an end.
And if sex is a poison, deceit is a dagger with which Valmont and Merteuil wield with great expertise. For the most part Valmont is cunningly open about his deceit through the use of double entendres.
Others in Valmont’s society despise him and know him for the cad he is, but receive him anyway because of his wealth and status. His strikes are careful, calculated, and planned to inflict maximum damage while enjoying the notoriety associated with his actions.
Merteuil, on the other hand, is akin to an assassin who plants the blade in her victims’ backs and twists the handle for the pleasure of adding insult to injury. While Valmont is a danger most see coming, Merteuil’s strength lies in her ability to hide her blade until the most opportune time to strike.
In this play, all are puppets unaware of who is ultimately pulling their strings.
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" continues through Dec 9 at Lansburgh Theatre at 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. For more information visit the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s website.