Sex and Power Take the Stage in Stunning Tel Aviv Production of 'Dangerous Liaisons'

An exercise in fine period theater with contemporary touches, about two people who toy with the loves of others and discover a bitter truth about themselves.

Osnat Fishman, left, as the marquise and Aviv Alush, second left, as Valmont in 'Dangerous Liaisons.'
Gerard Allon

The first thing that needs to be said about the Habima Theater company’s production of “Dangerous Liaisons” is that it is gorgeous to look at. Seven chandeliers hang over the stage, which is surrounded on its three sides by screens made of black strips, through which the movements of the actors is visible. On the stage the characters are costumed in period attire from the end of the 18th century in shades of off-white. The stylized choreography by Miri Lazar, to contemporized music (Vivaldi’s “Seasons” played on electric guitars and Madonna’s “Vogue” with its meaningful line “Strike the pose”) are impressive and special.

Against this background, a tale is told that can best be summed up by a quote from the television series “House of Cards”: “Everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” The epistolary novel by Choderlos De Laclos, which inspired Christopher Hampton’s play, tells the intertwined story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Viscount de Valmont, two adults who are convinced that they possess complete control over their desires and can therefore amuse themselves with the loves of other people in the corrupt society around them, which maintains a façade of decency. Unfortunately for them, they discover that the excuse and pretense the marquise concocts for the viscount – “It is beyond my control” – in order to help him be rid of the women who are competing with her for his body and heart – is a bitter truth for them both: Ultimately, nothing is under their control.

I can find no fault with this production; all its elements are the result of close attention and love. Osnat Fishman, as the marquise, is beautiful, cold and regal at the start, and then proceeds to fall apart as required, a prisoner of her envy, pride and self-love. Lea Gelfenstein is childlike and attractive, nave and seductive as Cecile Volanges, whom Valmont is out to seduce. Dana Yadlin is properly tormented in her role as the prim Madame de Tourvel, and Aviv Alush is manly in his role of the seducer Valmont who wants only to finish what he has started – until he himself is finished off.

The fact that this whole story somehow failed to thrill me and doesn’t seem to belong to anything other than the general statement that “one must not toy with love (and sex)” left me with about two-thirds of my desire in hand, appreciative of the production but emotionally disconnected from the experience. Sorry, it’s beyond my control.

I’ll finish with two comments that aren’t actually related to this production: 1. It would be interesting to transfer the plot to our post-feminist era, and instead of letters being transmitted from hand to hand, have the exchanges take place via email. 2. In the world premiere of the play in 1985, a production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Viscount de Valmont was played by Alan Rickman, who died this month.