Joe Kodeih’s Brilliant Dangerous Liaisons and a few Missed Opportunities

Nélida Nassar   03.15.2016

In adapting for the stage Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons, Joe Kodeih has tackled a seminal text of French literature, a subject he has studied closely since his college years. He also has many years of experience with the theater, having performed his first dramatic role in 1993 with the same play, he is acting and directing today. Before him cinema and theater giants 
such as Roger Vadim and Milos Forman created very different versions of the novel, but it is undoubtedly Stephen Frear’s 1988 cinematic attempt inspired by Christopher Hampton 1985 theatre adaptation and the intensity of his different interpreters roles that remains most vivid in our memories.

Bernadette Houdeib, as Madame de Merteuil, is well suited to the task of seducing Bruno Tabbal, the Chevalier Danceny, away from Patricia Smayra, camping admirably as the young Cécile de Volanges. The outcome brings vengeance and pure intellectual pleasure. Meanwhile, Kodeih, as Vicomte de Valmont, manages to charm the virtuous Solange Tark, playing Madame de Tourvel, the loyal wife of a provincial magistrate, whom he determines to undo. This dangerous pas de deux with the affairs of the heart creates some intensely dramatic situations. Do not be fooled by this idyllic and colorful plot. The joyful and light complicity uniting Houdeib and Kodeih is only apparent. If they play together, it’s only at the expense of others. And they themselves will be undone as their little “game” turns gradually into a deadly trap.

The more the plot advances, the more one becomes intrigued by these two former lovers 
who play with the hearts and bodies of those around them, manipulating everyone and themselves in a huge con game from which no one emerges unscathed. Overall, Houdeib plays her character well, by turns hypocritical, charming, ruthless, powerful and yet terribly lonely. However, she fails to master one of the most important aspects of her role – the art of seduction. Kodeih, as Valmont, embodies his unflinching character effortlessly and convincingly. Tabbal lends weight, glamour and elegance to the young Chevalier Danceny, who finds himself an innocent foot-soldier in an artful campaign. His acting, singing and dancing talents prove he is far more than an accomplished performer.

Kodeih dresses his actors sometimes in period costumes and sometimes in very provocative sado-masochist leather outfits. The stage design is minimalist. There is an upright piano with several bottles of spirits that functions mainly as a bar; and there are no curtains, ornaments or decorations, just a black bench that is pivoted by the actors depending on the needs of the plot. The semi-circular stage design, with its picture-frame rotating doors, suggests suave elegance on the verge of dissolution. It reinforces the point that the play is about the terminal exhaustion of a decadent time. It is grim but gripping to watch. Frequently lit by candlelight, the set variously glows and glowers. The unique element of color is a crimson throw rug that serves alternately as a garment, a bench/couch cover, or a shoulder wrap.

Reenergizing his theatre production on many levels, Kodeih, who usually appears only in one-man shows, here gathers around him for the first time four principal actors and several others in cameo roles (in this case, René Deeb, Lebanon’s theatre veteran, and Marie Christine Tayyah in the prostitute’s role). He perfectly adapts the language of the classical French repertoire to Arabic colloquialism, interspersing the dialogues with French for the epistolary readings while studding it with a few surprising English exclamations, resulting in a mix not unlike Lebanese language hybridizations. He flirts with the musical genre by infusing the performance with singing and several memorable dance tableaux lightening the play’s intensity. He also offers a new interpretation of the text, a lighter reading, calling to mind Marivaux’ play La Dispute (The Argument, 1744), in which a prince voyeuristically analyses and dissects the love affairs of a group of young people who have been separated from society since birth living in a castle in 
the forest. An experimental psychology plot examining if inconstancy comes from the man or woman. Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte (1790) also exhibits a similar emotional distancing in demonstrating female inconstancy. Above all, Kodeih transforms the drama into a comedy.

The popular Arabic that Kodeih employs in attempting to link the play to Lebanese reality as acutely and minutely as possible may be at times too coarse and obscene. The use of Il Dottere Della Peste’s with his Venetian masque brings to mind, warns and predicts a potential tragic outcome to the country’s ongoing trash crisis. Kodeih attacks society’s double standards with fierce clarity while conjuring up its hypocrisy, gossip and back stabbing. But Kodeih misses some great casting opportunities. What if he had renamed his characters in dialectal Arabic and switched roles with Bruno Tabbal and played the Chevalier Dannecy himself while Tabbal played le Comte de Valmont, thereby pushing their roles out of their respective comfort zones? Kodeih and Tabbal would each have been disconcerting with their strange, excessive mannerisms. It would have taken a while to accept that this is the game of Valmont and Danceny and not that of the actors, who would have slipped masterfully into their character’s skin.

Kodeih recreates the novel with considerable finesse, in particular the self-deluding destruction of the protagonists. It certainly was an evening to savor and an additional feather in Kodeih’s theatrical cap. I hope that in the near future he will assert his great acting and playwriting abilities more audaciously, shattering once and for all his self-imposed theatrical glass ceiling.

Theatre Gemmayze
Sacre Coeur School, Gemmayzeh, Beirut
March 11 – March 27, 2016

Joe Kodeih: Direction, Translation, Production
Bernadette Houdeib: Madame de Merteuil
Joe Kodeih: Vicomte de Valmont
Solange Trak: Mme de Tourvel
Bruno Tabal: Chevalier de Danceny
Patricia Smayra: Cecile de Volanges
Renée Deek: Madame de Rosemonde
Marie Christine Tayyah: Emilie the prostitute