*This is The Bad Oracle’s “family matters” disclosure: someone involved in this production is related to or the partner of a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle. This is an exception to our usual disclaimer, which is why it is here.
The thing with Les Liaisons Dangereuses (in English, Dangerous Liaisons) is that a lot of productions, both cinematic and theatrical, nail the liaison bit (sexy sex is fun) and completely ignore the dangerous part (uh, there’s also blatant rape). The version currently up at Spotlighters, directed by Erin Riley, is brilliant in that it avoids this. It says the words, you know? It says the words. Well, maybe not literally, much of Christopher Hampton’s dialogue is beyond tortured (which, tbh, I masochistically love). But Riley uses Hampdton’s twisty, veiled, vocal gameplay to be as blunt as possible about the implications. And if that makes the wit a little less fun, well, maybe it shouldn’t be all that fun. Women, especially women of the fucking eighteenth century, might have played the game, but they rarely won. And that’s grim, when you think about it.
The Woman is La Marquise de Merteuil (Melissa McGinley) a bored noble who has taken to sadistically toying with those of her acquaintance. She’s aided in this pursuit by her purring male soultwin, and former lover, Le Vicomte de Valmont (Nathan Parry). Rich and mean, these two merrily and methodically ash the hearts of anyone unlucky enough to cross their paths, until! Enter La Presidente de Tourvel (Katharine Vary), a high strung, and, more than that, truly virtuous beauty, so, catnip to both. The Vicomte throws a gauntlet: if he can manage to sniff up Tourvel’s tree, maybe, just maybe, he gets another chance at Merteuil’s golden fleece. Not content to ruin only one life at a time, the Marquise sets her glowing eyes on the very young Cecile de Volanges (Jacqueline Chenault) and her lover, Le Chevalier Danceny (Jeffrey L. Springtree Gangwisch), as low-hanging fruit. She desires that Valmont should deflower the little one in order to create a scandal and embarrass a rival. Hands are shaken, wine is drunk and an aristocratic deal is struck.
Riley has included an additional element to the show: dance pieces (choreography by Melissa McGinley) that serve to re-enforce the themes. Man, are they beautiful. Is everyone onstage a dancer? No. But that hardly matters. In fact, I was more excited to see the actors acting through the numbers then I was overly preoccupied with perfect technique. The movement feels vital and real. It also add to an already long runtime, sure, but length doesn’t bother me as long as the play keeps having something to say, and this one does. Like I said before, Riley’s perspective avoids glossing over the sexual violence inherent in book and script and I, for one, am really glad to see it not tee-heed away. Valmont is a sexual predator and love does NOT tame him (which is a ridiculously sappy interpretation), it uncages him. The show is emotionally well-pitched, and the movement adds an extra punch.
Performances are a little uneven. Parry doesn’t seem as comfortable in his wolfskin as I would like. He’s forcing, especially at the beginning. As soon as he relaxes, really relaxes around the end of the first act, he’s into it. The chemistry is suddenly there. I don’t think he’s necessarily aided by the initial speed-thru pace (clearly, there was some concern about the length, this smells like the actors had the fear of God put into them about going over). These people are supposed to be languid, they are unconcerned. McGinley has the same issue, for what it’s worth. But again, as soon as she relaxes, the play comes alive. Her face is a knife, her eyes are narrow, but most surprising for me is the way she makes me…well…end up feeling kind of bad for the Marquise. Not a lot bad, but a little bad. Definitely not the relish at her downfall I’ve experienced in other interpretations. A golden cage is still a cage and the system is the system. Does that excuse the shocking nature of her dismissal of other women’s pain? Of course not. But there it is.
Supporting cast is quite strong. Katharine Vary puts what is becoming her patented spin on famous female characters (she just did a pretty amazing Gertrude in Cohesion’s Hamlet). Usually, I find Madame Tourvel eye-rollingly weak. I mean, she kind of dies of being pathetically attached to an out-and-out scoundrel. But Vary brings a textured backstory to her performance with intriguing hints of possible mental illness: her Tourvel is, at times, like a manic bird beating fiercely against a glass ceiling. She’s hysterical, yes, but, then again, she’s been pushed and pushed and pushed and when that control is final loosened, it can’t be put back again. Jacqueline Chernault is heartbreaking as Cecile, a woman who has been thrown away. Much thought went into this performance, it’s extremely layered, showing an impressive range of reaction to sexual assault. I was grateful for that care. I’m always just fascinated watching Jeffery Gangwich perform, he has such a strange, presentational stage quality that he really makes work for him, especially in these costume dramas. Ruta Douglas Smith and Kay-Megan Washington, both fixtures of the Baltimore scene, have some fun with some grande dame characters (wanted more of Washington, but then, don’t I always) and Kerry Brady is adorable as Emile, an in-the-know lady of the night. Brian Douglas does a lot with the small part of Azolan, the Vicomte’s butler, he’s hilariously weary. There’s a cheeky play-within-a-play thing going on with the servants (Bambi Galore, J. Purnell Hargrove and Jenny Hasselbusch) that’s a nice nod to operatic convention and covers the multiple location changes charmingly.
I was a little lost with tech, here, and honestly, much of it seemed messy. Costumes by Amy Rawe Weimer are clearly hand-constructed, which I always appreciate, but seem only kind of finished (maybe more help was needed, it’s a big show). Normally, I might not care so much about snagged seams and trailing hem strings, but this one needs to be clean. For these individuals, clothes are really, very, super important. The Vicomte de Valmont would not be caught dead wearing a Netflixing tank top, no matter what century he’s in. I think there is an attempt to mix contemporary style with French court, but you have to watch it with that and be really specific or it starts looking budget. Same issue with hair and makeup (Lexi Martinez). I get it, but especially on McGinley, it doesn’t work for me. And same with the stage design by Laurie Brandon – I like the black and white chessboard reference, but the painting needs clean-up and the wall decoupage, while a nice idea of imprisoning the characters with words, is bubbling all over the place.
BOTTOM LINE: This Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an example of the potential of small theater: a daring, risky look at a two-hundred year old story, making it frighteningly intimate. It isn’t faultless, and the tech, especially, could use tightening. But I’ll take something a little messy, but vital, over technical perfection any day. The show is challenging and alive. It’s a yes.
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