Feast of sins

Sin and redemption are the favorite themes of Janet Farrow, a skilled, intuitive adapter and a flamboyant, if sometimes overly mannered, director. Farrow imported her fierce love for classical literature from the American Shakespeare Repertory Theater in New York City to our arts-unfriendly city and created Classic Theatre Company five years ago. She and her troupe of talented actors threw at us one furious re-envisioning of European stage tragedy after another, stripping away the wigs and velvet curtains one normally associates with period chamber pieces.

Farrow was ruthless in the way she changed text and context if it suited a larger mood. Indeed, sometimes it has seemed over the years that mood was the bottom line with Classic Theatre Company. The quality of their productions has been wildly erratic, based mostly on whether Farrow's whims actually served the script. Dialogue from The Taming of the Shrew, for example, was never meant to elicit laughter by being read in an East Texas accent; Farrow's update and transplant aimed at a farcical lightheartedness but wound up scattering able talents to the wind.

But when Farrow and company have maintained the right rhythm, they have, without question, produced the city's finest classical theater. It's a measure of Farrow's well-developed theatrical muscle that she could raise her interpretations to the level of bodice-ripping melodrama but rarely devolve into camp. Her emotions are big and unruly; you can almost feel her in hand-to-hand combat with Shakespeare and Marlowe and Genet and other dead white Europeans, daring them to stir from neglected library pages and perform their withered hearts out for contemporary Texas theater audiences. Even in her more precious moments, you could feel Farrow pushing against the limits of the material, reigniting centuries-old passions with a defiant (and often unrewarded) belief in the relevancy of theatrical catharsis. In productions like 1991's Hamlet and 1994's The Queens, a modern script by a living French-Canadian playwright based very loosely on Richard III, Farrow and her actors drew the kinds of gasps, nervous laughter, and rapt silences usually reserved for action films.

Sadly, as is the case with many terrific Dallas theater companies both past and present, audience support was extremely fickle, and Classic Theatre Company kept the footlights dim throughout much of 1994 and 1995. It returned this month--with considerable organizational support from the Undermain and Dallas Theater Center--to stage Farrow's original adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' 1798 short novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The book was, for the better part of a century, officially banned in various places in Europe for its extremely unconventional heroes--a pair of cruel, promiscuous ex-lovers who maintain a sexually charged "friendship" based on their mutual ability to manipulate everyone around them. Les Liaisons Dangereuses was pornography in the most provocative sense of that word, a morality play with the morality turned inside-out and the glistening guts of hope and misery paraded in like a monster suit. The novel dared to suggest the cheap thrill that cruelty and duplicity can provide even as it confirmed the inevitable tragedy of a life lived to enjoy both.

Most Americans are familiar with Les Liaisons Dangereuses through British filmmaker Stephen Frears' 1989 adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play. Farrow wisely bypassed Hampton, the theatrical dean of dysfunctional relationships (he also penned Total Eclipse, about the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud, and Carrington, about painter Dora Carrington and memoirist Lytton Strachey--see Arnold Wayne Jones' review of the film version in this issue). While Hampton took delight in the tension between the decorum of 18th-century French aristocracy and the frail human heart, Farrow has, for the most part, chucked concerns with social hypocrisy and focused on the wicked, bloodstained misadventures of the Vicomte de Valmont (Matthew Stephen Tompkins) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Constance Gold).

These former lovers have a unique relationship that has replaced sexual activity with one another. Both have too much of a love for variety to even consider monogamy--they get off by spending considerable leisure time wrecking homes, deflowering virgins, toying with suitors, and ruthlessly pursuing the most vulnerable prey. For our edification, de Laclos and Farrow recount the final interdependent scheme that will undo both amorous careers--the Vicomte's seduction, at the Marquise's urging, of the kind-hearted but troubled Madame de Tourvel (Laurel Hoitsma) and the naive Cecile (Lisa Peterson), who is engaged to the impetuous Chevalier (Timothy Vahle). For the Vicomte, it's just another chance to perfect his rooster's strut, but for the Marquise, it's an act of revenge against an entire family.

The actors are uniformly fine, although Constance Gold, as the viperish Marquise, initially fails to convey her delight at creating human misery. Gold is an able actress who has distinguished herself in a stunning variety of comic and dramatic roles both in and out of Classic Theatre Company; perhaps it's that impressive malleability that undercuts the Marquise, who seems (in both this version and Christopher Hampton's) less a character to inhabit than a series of artful affectations to maintain under increasing strain. In that sense, it's the most thankless role in the play, more commentator than participant, and although Gold acquits herself with fluid professionalism, she blurs a bit around the edges.

The real stand-outs are Matthew Stephen Tompkins, who has a face and body like Patrick Swayze and a masterful voice reminiscent of Kevin Kline, and Laurel Hoitsma, who avoids transforming the weak-willed Madame de Tourvel into the whiny, blubbering mass of fidgets that a lesser actress might. This is a character whose face must, for the length of the play, illustrate her internal battle between duty and need, and Hoitsma maintains a knock-out high-wire act that collapses in a climactic confrontation with the Vicomte. The scenes between her and Tompkins, who exudes a sexy swagger that's at once self-conscious but wholly integrated into his performance, are the most riveting.

Farrow's adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses contains all the trademarks of Classic Theatre Company--a reliance on highly stylized tableaux and non-speaking interludes with music; robust, effective performances that sometimes loom too large for the Company's small space; and a relentless dramatic tempo that, depending on your tastes, will thrill or exhaust you. What Farrow has abandoned is her penchant for gimmicky stagings that reached its apex with a 1992 production of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, in which the actors played certain scenes on a gigantic, multi-leveled platform on wheels. Her restless, ferocious imagination, even at its most unruly, is always a welcome change from the anemic amphitheater walk-ons of the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas.

Farrow seems to display far more discipline with original adaptations. She's more successful completely recasting the action based on her own imagination than simply gussying up a centuries-old script. In Les Liaisons Dangereuses, she seems more concerned with character motivation and the tight, almost dancerly stage blocking that will best illuminate it. Farrow conducts her actors in ever-tightening concentric circles of desperation and self-deception. For audiences tired of pointless reinterpretations, this production makes a happy marriage out of two seemingly irreconcilable strengths--respect for the classical tradition and raw, explosive, immediate emotions that grab you by the lapels and don't let go.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses runs through December 9 at the Basement Space. Call 423-3399.


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