Washington, D.C Review: A Daring Dangerous Liaisons

Any production of Les Liasions Dangeureuses is going to come with its fair share of sexy intrigue. Yet the Actors' Theater of Washington has staged the play with such near-pornographic levels of steaminess that only those over 18 are admitted. It's sexy alright...but between the ogles, you are likely to be stunned by a bold, sometimes brilliant exploration of gender and sexuality that's more about human perversity than it is perversion.

Don't see this show expecting the frou-frou film, either. In the 1988 movie, John Malkovich and Glenn Close played the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, a pair of aristocratic ex-lovers who turn their affairs into an elaborate game of erotic manipulation; pass Go if you can conquer your prey's heart as well as his/her body. Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos novel is enacted here by an all-male cast that gives this stylized show a homoerotic (though not necesarrily gay) tilt. It's not a drag show either; in program notes, artistic director Jeffrey Johnson explains that his company sought a "blank gender slate," in which the audience could question its own assumptions about "gender trait trade-offs." The choice mostly pays off under Gardner's audacious direction and generally strong performances from her cast. Johnson also plays Merteuil, who in the wrong hands, might have come off as the sort of exaggerated camp vamp that has inspired East Village drag queens for years--think Charles Busch as a baroque Joan Crawford.

While the show doesn't mentally spoon-feed you, it's hard not to come away with a few gender observations. Watching Valmont (Christopher Henley) have his way with virginal Cécile (Brent Stansell), one wonders if his very forward advances might be even more shocking if the latter was a woman; it's a direct assault on double standards.

At the start of the show, which is far less bound to realism than either the film or the original play, we see the actors take their place on the stage, some of them standing behind three swirlingly frescoed screens (Greg Stevens' stunning minimalist set suggests the 18th century but is timeless enough to have Office Depot swivel chairs). Each garbed in variations of a white blouse and black pants (also by Stevens), they approach the red velvet divan at the center of the stage and pick up costumes pieces; it's as if they're choosing their very chromosomes. The female characters choose ruby bracelets, earrings, shawls, purses, the men fewer accessories. For the remainder of the play, the actors who are not directly involved in scenes stand at the sides of the stage, watching the action with (mostly) detached interest. It's a disarming effect; what are Valmont and Merteuil but actors staging and starring in their own cruel erotic dramas?

Merteuil and Valmont are bonded by their mutual love of sexual power games, and their shared disgust with a hypocritical, angel-Cupid society. They amuse themselves with challenges; Merteuil bets Valmont that he can't seduce the virtuous, married Presidente de Tourvel (Peter Klaus); in addition, he has to come up with a letter from her to prove her surrender. Valmont does come through, though not before relieving young Cécile de Volanges of her innocence. Meanwhile, Merteuil amuses herself with playing Mrs. Robinson to Cécile's flame Danceny (Daniel Eichner).

Yet the game becomes more complicated as Valmont's lust for Tourvel becomes something more, and soon both he and Merteuil are breaking their own rules and declaring war on each other.

The sexual couplings aren't sensationalistic, but they're pretty explicit (although not enough to get it shown on hotel TV screens). In one scene, Valmont's session with Tourvel is at once sensual, beautiful and terrifying; to chiming, discordant music the two press bodies under a sheer red blanket patterned with starbursts, and we know that the union cannot end happily for either. Sound effects and music are vital to this production; Gardner uses everything from baroque to Stravinsky to add to the intense layering of moods (though a prior scene in which Valmont has his first failed go at Tourvel is excessive as the other actors hiss "yes" at the woman like dirty-minded geese).

At times, the actors seem a little ill-at-ease in the black box stage at the Source Theatre, especially during transitional mid-scene minuets; the production was supposed to have opened at Busboys and Poets but was moved due to construction (it will stay at the Source). Yet the actors work well together as an ensemble, and mostly handle Hampton's verbally-tricky script with flair and in some cases, convincing femininity (Stansell's dim, demure Cécile comes to mind here).

As Merteuil, Johnson deftly clarifies her mutation from woman to monster; "I have to dominate your sex and avenge my own," she seethes to Valmont. He's also very funny as he lounges on the divan and delivers Hampton's naughty bon mots with stinging precision. Henley is an oily, seductive Valmont, but Klaus gives the most emotionally textured performances as the conflicted Tourvel.

You probably wouldn't want to take either Valmont or Merteuil home to meet the parents. But in this provocative production, they're great tour guides to an amoral but alluring world.

For tickets and more information, visit www.atwdc.org.

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From This Author Maya Cantu

Maya Cantu recently graduated from Virginia's James Madison University, where she majored in theatre. She is very excited about starting her MFA in Dramaturgy and (read more...)

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