Readers of this newspaper have no doubt noticed those ads featuring that irritating little waif announcing the return to Washington of the big, brash musical "Les Miserables." But a far more humble theatrical production, "The Man Who Laughs," based on another of Victor Hugo's monumental works, "L'Homme Qui Rit," has already opened in an English-language production at the inimitable Le Neon French-American Theatre.
If big, brash spectacles are what you're after, don't bother with the plucky Arlington company's ultra-literate style, minuscule performance space and budget-conscious sets and costumes. But if you're a more curious, take-a-chance sort of theatergoer, you might want to spend a couple of hours immersed in Le Neon's exceedingly ardent and eccentric universe.
"L'Homme Qui Rit," one of the author's later and less accessible works, is both a consciousness-raising epic and an emotional roller coaster of a tale. Gwynplaine, an abandoned child with a hideous "laughing mask" carved into his face by fairground buffoons, is adopted by the misanthropic philosopher Ursus. Together with the blind and angelic Dea, father and son spend each night performing Ursus's play "Chaos Vanquished" from their crude theater wagon. As Gwynplaine matures, he falls in love with his adoptive sister -- the only one to "see" the beautiful soul behind his hideously deformed countenance -- and then embarks on a difficult journey of temptation, political education, revelation and sorrow.
In translating and adapting this sermonizing tome, Susan Haedicke, Monica Neagoy and Didier Rousselet (the latter two also directed and designed the show) have retained the gist of the story (their script is at once poetic, awkward and impenetrable) while attempting to turn it into something of visual and aural interest. The actors travel back and forth along a narrow, dramatically lit corridor between Ursus's simple wagon and the world of politics and wealth, as represented by a cloth-draped series of steps and platforms. Stately baroque music accompanies their every action. Most intriguingly, there is as much emphasis on movement as there is on language; for example, the scene in which the adult Gwynplaine is ritualistically dressed in the raiments of a lord turns out to be far more compelling than any of Ursus's overblown monologues. And visual artist Jean Uroz's design of the wide, tooth-encrusted smile that turns Gwynplaine's face into a horrific mask is riveting to behold.
There's a great gap in acting styles here, which provides a certain fascination. Arena Stage veteran Richard Bauer plays the garrulous Ursus in that manic, vocally over-the-top style that local audiences have grown to love or loathe, while Rousselet and Neagoy portray, respectively, Gwynplaine and Dea with a quiet intensity and physicality that bespeaks their training in mime and other movement forms (Rousselet's pronounced French accent provides an additional layer of strangeness). The rest of the cast is serviceable at best.
The Man Who Laughs (L'Homme Qui Rit). An original English-language adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel. With Erin Conroy, Vanessa Durant, Laura George, Mikael Manoukian, Meziane Touati, Christopher Wolf. Through Feb. 18 at Le Neon French-American Theatre Company, 3616 Lee Hwy., Arlington, 703-243-6366. CAPTION: Richard Bauer, standing, Monica Neagoy and Didier Rousselet in Le Neon's "The Man Who Laughs," based on a Victor Hugo novel.