Review: Bravura LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES at Center Stage: A Welcome Antidote to Seasonal Good Cheer

By: Dec. 06, 2016
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Center Stage is starting its new season with a bravura flourish: Nothing less challenging than a presentation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' scandalous epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. You have to give the company high marks for moxie. The show is both technically and dramatically demanding, and, over two centuries after the novel came out, still bound to be controversial. No resting on laurels for Center Stage, even as it begins the slow reveal of its newly-renovated home (of which more below).

Back to the show for now. The book has made six unrelated trips to the screen and has been crafted into three different plays or musicals. Despite that history, let's be honest: does anyone really understand the plot? To follow the schemes cooked up by ancien regime decadents the Marquise de Meurteil (portrayed here by SuzzAnne Douglas) and her former lover and frenemy the Vicomte de Valmont (Brent Harris) you need a libretto and a scorecard. All the reader or theatergoer generally ends up grasping or remembering is that Valmont worms his way into various beds he has no business in, that Valmont and Meurteil have occasion to be incredibly unpleasant to the people caught up in their game and to each other, and that, for some reason, the intrigues lead to some swordplay and death towards the end.

And let us add improbability to the incomprehensibility. Without the benefit of modern psychiatry, Laclos capably nailed a type we now call the psychopath. Meurteil and Valmont both have this personality disorder: that seems clear. Yet Laclos would have it that Valmont at least, if not Meurteil, possesses some genuine appreciation of and attraction to morality, and a capacity for moral regret. Laclos (who seems not to have been a libertine like his heroes) may not have grasped that the psychopath with a true conscience is a nonesuch.

So let's see: we have byzantine complexity and unreal psychology. Doesn't sound like the sort of thing that would keep readers and theatergoers keep coming back. Yet somehow, almost inexplicably, this slightly pornographic extravaganza of obscurity and nastiness continues to claim our attention. Never mind why; some things just are that way.

Center Stage's handsome production does well by the nastiness. Every rococo detail works in Michael Carnahan's handsome set (complete with a stunning polished floor), and in Fabio Toblini's exquisite gowns. The fencing, directed by Rick Sordelet, seems both lethal and elegant. The opulence of the visuals just makes the decadence gleam the brighter.

The palpable pleasure in Merteuil and Valmont take in their respective villainies is also well conveyed. Even if you can't exactly call to mind exactly why Meurteuil and Valmont are doing whatever they're doing to whomever they're doing it to, you grin because of the way Douglas and Harris convey their characters' sheer evil elan. Most of the other characters are patsies, in one way or another, but very well-performed patsies: including Cécile Volanges (Noelle Franco) a young convent graduate soon flirting hungrily with ruination, her credulous mother, who follows Merteuil's every dangerous suggestion (Carine Montbertrand), Mme. De Tourvel (GillIan Williams), whose very nobility of spirit becomes a weapon Valmont uses against her, and Danceny (Paul Deo, Jr.), Meurteuil's boy-toy, pictured above crossing swords with Valmont, ultimately converted in an unlikely way into Valmont's instrument of revenge. You believe in them all.

The adaptation, by playwright Christopher Hampton, is capable, but makes questionable choices at the end. If you've read the book or seen the movies, you're expecting Meurteil to receive more of a come-uppance than Hampton provides; for retribution Hampton seems to be counting on the doom awaiting the entire nobility and haute bourgeoisie in the form of the French Revolution, just around the corner at the end of the action, a little too heavily foreshadowed in the last minutes. I think that's a questionable choice, since Merteuil and Valmont are the snakes in this garden; the society as a whole is not portrayed as a nest of vipers, and the structural injustice of pre-Revolutionary France is barely hinted at. The common disaster awaiting the good and bad ruling class characters alike is thus not a readily apparent righting of wrongs.

In the midst of endless revivals of A Christmas Carol (two of which I'll shortly be reviewing) and other holiday fare, all overflowing with peace on earth and good will toward men, you may be craving something that sounds a more misanthropic note. If so, Center Stage has just what you need, served up with class and spirit. But hurry; this show will disappear before the eggnog does.

Let me end with two miscellaneous observations.

My one big objection first. If you look at the cast bios in the program, you will not see one single cast member who has previously trodden the boards at Center Stage. Not one. Casting has been performed by an agency out of New York, as was the case with all or most of the shows at Center Stage over the last two years. The previous managing director in an interview a couple of years ago assured me there would more emphasis on local performers. In practice, that has most often meant a) borrowing Bruce Randolph Nelson from Everyman several times and b) otherwise using local performers in ensemble roles, not featured ones. I do not count this as more emphasis on local performers. Once upon a time people who in later years gravitated to Everyman were regulars at Center Stage: Carl Schurr and Wil Love and the late Vivienne Shub and Tana Hicken. Performers who went on to national prominence like Terry O'Quinn and Christine Baranski were nurtured there. Now no one gets nurtured at Center Stage: it's an endless churn reminiscent of W.S. Gilbert's lampoon of "The idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone/ All centuries but this, and every country but his own." The performers on the conveyor belt are all talented, and I'm not knocking a one of them, but we've never heard of them before and never will again. Most of the bios contain no evidence the players have even played in our region before. Local actors apparently need not apply. Believe it or not, Center Stage, we Baltimore theater people do pick up on the New York disrespect.

The beginning of this season is late this year, because of the extensive work being done on the building. But so far, there is still nothing to see. The hallway from front door to the portals of the Pearlstone Theater is a sheetrock waste, without bar or café, without seating, without anything except a narrowed passage to the Pearlstone auditorium which, so far as I can tell, has not been altered. The word I heard is that the renovations will finish up in February. We in the audience are all anxiously agog, but we shall all just have to wait until the next show. My best advice during this show, however, is: Don't come early: there's nowhere to sit before they open the doors.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton, directed by Hana S. Sharif, at Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202, through December 23. Tickets $20-$54, at 410.332.0033 or Sexual situations, simulated sex, nudity, swordplay.

Photo credit: Richard Anderson


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