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Theater Review: “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” at Shakespeare Theatre

Theatre de L’Atelier and director John Malkovich stage a racy update of the classic French tale.

Photo of Theatre de l’Atelier’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, presented at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photograph by Gaspard Leclerc.

In a season that favors frothy goodwill, peace on earth, and jolly men compelling
one to sit on their lap (whether at the mall or the office holiday party), Theatre
de L’Atelier’s production of
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre, is something of an acerbic antidote—an
aperitif to cut through all the eggnog. Directed by
John Malkovich, and translated into French by
Fanette Barraya from Christopher Hampton’s original play (which, to make matters even more complicated,
was translated from the 18th-century French novel by Choderlos de Laclos), the production
is here for a fleeting four days, composing its entire US engagement.

Malkovich’s concept—in which the actors’ costumes are a fusion of bustles, wigs, and
skinny jeans, and the Machiavellian Vicomte de Valmont (Yannik Landrein) drafts letters on his iPad—could be hit-or-miss, if it weren’t for the spectacular
cast of actors he’s assembled. All, with the exception of Madame de Rosemonde (Sophie Barjac), are under 30, and their youth, combined with a jaded sense of disdain for social
piety, gives a familiar tale a biting sense of relevancy.

Landrein appears in virtually every scene as Valmont, the character Malkovich played
so memorably in Stephen Frears’ Oscar-nominated
Dangerous Liaisons, and his performance is enthralling. Baby face only partially hidden under a wispy
goatee, he flips so effortlessly between sociopathic scheming with the Marquise de
Merteuil (Julie Moulier) and expressing true vulnerability to the saintly Madame de Tourvel (Jina Djemba) that his elaborate seduction of a paragon of virtue almost looks easy.

Subtitles above the stage offer an English translation of the script, but if it weren’t
for de Laclos’s intricately complicated plot, they wouldn’t be necessary at all. Valmont’s
exquisite body language, whether he’s arching an eyebrow at the virginal Cécile de
Volanges (Agathe Le Bourdonnec) or rolling up his sleeves with the disdain of a bored gynecologist as he manhandles
a prostitute (Lola Naymark), needs no translation, and the design elements (costumes, hair, and makeup by Mina Ly) more than do their part to tell the story. Madame de Merteuil, a bitter widow frustrated
by a hypocritical, patriarchal society, wears black, from her semi-exposed bustle
and immaculately tailored pants to her nicely threatening stilettos. The red corset
underneath Madame de Tourvel’s all-white apparel is one of the few notes of excess,
hammering home her status as a fallen woman of virtue with the subtlety of a pneumatic

Malkovich, one of the founders of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, pays tribute
in more than one instance to the movie that cemented his status as a movie star, including
a scene in which the Marquise de Merteuil removes her gaudy makeup much like Glenn
Close once did. But by staging the production in French, he also manages to make it
more authentic, combining the worst elements of Gallic decadence (je te vois, Dominique Strauss-Kahn) with the poetic nuances of a society in which seduction
is sport. It’s hard to imagine a scene in which Valmont tells his mistress that circumstances
are beyond his control being quite so ruthlessly cruel if he weren’t saying
“c’est independent de ma volonté” over and over again.

The music by
Nicolas Erréra also seems fitting, with the familiar classical works chosen to accompany certain scenes
offsetting the modern elements in the production. But it’s the performances that make
the show so compelling—no easy task given its three-hour running time. The company,
with a few exceptions, spends all its time onstage, a tactic that feels overly common
at the moment, but one that succeeds in expressing the prying eyes of a bored French
aristocracy, condemned by ennui and far too clever for their own good.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre through December 9. Running time is
about three hours, including one intermission. The show contains nudity and strong
adult themes. Tickets ($60 to $75) are available through Shakespeare Theatre’s website