“Love and revenge, two of your favorites.”
It’s the eve of the French Revolution and the crème of the French aristocracy – the “original one percent” so aptly described by Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah in his program note – are bored. With no work to do or real obstacles to overcome, a pair of très riche sociopaths entertain themselves with the seduction, manipulation and ruination of others. Such is the backdrop of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (“Liaisons”), the daring first production in Center Stage’s 2016/2017 theatrical season.
The aristocrats in question, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, are former lovers. Their romantic relationship over, their association revolves around a sadistic game in which they issue each other lascivious challenges, making sport of the lives of people who interest or annoy them. There are two main conquests around which Liaisons is centered. One is a challenge from Merteuil to Valmont: the deflowering of Cecile Volanges (Noelle Franco), a young virgin fresh from the convent, who is engaged to a man Merteuil feels has wronged her. It is an act designed to cause great embarrassment to the man, which will, incidentally, be the ruin of the innocent girl. The second is a goal Valmont has set for himself. As a means of surpassing his own high-water mark for salacious cruelty, he aims to seduce La Présidente de Tourvel, a happily married woman renowned for her virtue.
The play, written by Christopher Hampton, is based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos, but is surprisingly timely in many ways. As Center Stage Associate Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif, who directed the production, notes, “This is a sleek, sexy show. Although the setting is turn of the 18th century, Les Liaisons Dangereuses explores themes that are still incredibly relevant today. I am intrigued by the dynamics of power, gender, manipulation and the contrast between the public identity and the private self.”
Indeed, the Marquise de Merteuil, played by the exquisite Suzzanne Douglas, has made a study of the intersections between power and gender. She explains to Valmont that a woman of her time’s primary source of power is the promise of, the withholding of, or the consent to the act of sex. Men, on the other hand, “can ruin us whenever the fancy takes you. All we can achieve by denouncing you is to enhance your prestige.”
Douglas, known to many for her successful career on screens big and small, is a powerful force on the stage. Striking in gorgeous period gowns by Costume Designer Fabio Toblini, Douglas embodies the intelligent, if immoral, Merteuil. She commands the men in her midst, purring seductively or bitingly chastising them to achieve her whims and desires. She is equally effective with women. Sweetly gaining their confidences, she guides them like hapless marionettes to their downfall, them thanking her all the way. Merteuil is a brutal and unsympathetic character, yet Douglas manages to reveal, in small glimpses, the pain and desperation that underlies her savagery.
A well-suited match to Douglas’ Merteuil is the accomplished Brent Harris as Vicomte de Valmont. His rakish Valmont can turn from a charismatic gentleman to a contemptible blackguard in as little time as it takes for a woman to turn to leave the room. He has a disarming smile and charms his prey with an expertise honed through years of practice. Harris shows an admirable emotional range as Valmont evolves. He is believable not only as a libertine seducer or brutish despoiler, but also in the self-reflective moments when Valmont experiences genuine feelings, perhaps for the first time.
Gillian Williams shines as Valmont’s quarry, the principled Présidente de Tourvel. Her porcelain skin, upright posture, and demure tone combine to give her an almost angelic air in the first act that serves to make her later struggles that much more agonizing. Williams earnestly expresses the pain of a discordant heart.
Noelle Franco’s portrayal of Cecile Volanges’ transformation from wide-eyed innocent to enthusiastic student was both discomfiting and comical. Also notable in this production wealthy with exceptional acting, is the work of Elizabeth Shepherd as Madame de Rosemonde and Georgia Warner as Émilie. Each gives a strong, memorable performance in their very different roles.
The artistic team for Les Liaisons Dangereuses created a beautiful world for the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont to perform their monstrous acts. Scenic Designer Michael Carnahan’s dazzling set, framed by gilt columns and shimmering curtains, possesses numerous visual cues that reinforce the themes of the play. The square pattern on the floor and the glass upstage wall is reminiscent of a chessboard – a subtle reminder that to Merteuil and Valmont, all the lies, maneuvers, seductions, and betrayals are simply part of a game.
There are also abundant reflective surfaces in Carnahan’s set. The floor is so highly shined that it acts as a mirror, as do the marbled entryways, the windows, and the back glass wall. Even the ornate chandeliers and the silver adornments on the furniture reflect what’s before them. This motif brings to mind the superficiality of the lavish opulence in which the aristocracy lives. Much like the lives of the antiheroes of this play, their homes are full of things that are pleasing on the surface, but which are built on the suffering of others. It also makes me wonder what the shameful Marquise and Vicomte see when they look in the mirror – their expertly curated, attractive exteriors or the broken, malevolent souls that reside beneath?
Costume Designer Fabio Toblini outfits not only Merteuil, but all the women of Liaisons in a series of lush gowns, each more sumptuous than the last. Not to be outdone, the men in the show, most especially the dashing Valmont, are resplendent in their aristocratic finery.
The way that Lighting Designer Matthew Richards illuminates this production could not be more complimentary to Carnahan’s set or to Toblini’s costumes. Richards lights scenes in artful and lovely ways, from candlelit boudoirs sensuously steeped in shadow to brightly lit parlours full of ladies doing needlepoint, chatting and playing cards. But he also makes bold use of color, setting the tone during scene changes with washes of vibrant green and fuschia, lusty reds, regal purples, and stark, cold whites over the brick wall at the back of the stage. Each of these transitions seems to announce the entrance of a lady, the colors matching or complementing their magnificent dresses, before settling the brickwork background into the golden glow used for most of the scenes.
Sound Designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes added the final ingredients to complete the atmosphere of 18th Century France. Their original compositions marry the courtly music style of the Ancien Régime with modern-feeling bass and percussion elements to make a soundscape that at once feels refined and classical, sexy and modern. Additionally, their use of Massive Attack’s “Angel” at the close of the show is an inspired choice.
Liaisons is a sordid tale of revenge and betrayal, but I should note that it is also surprisingly funny. Some scenes, such as the writing of Valmont’s first letter to Présidente de Tourvel, are straight-up comical right from the script. Much of the humor, though, is the result of Hana S. Sharif’s excellent direction and the physicality and comedic timing of her cast. In a show of this length, the laughs are a refreshing respite from what could otherwise be an uncomfortably depressing evening of watching people behaving dreadfully toward one another.
Center Stage’s production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses hits every mark. The story is unabashedly sexy, yet there is much more to it than a voyeuristic peek at a twisted competition between a couple of overprivileged misanthropes. The director and artistic team have pulled out all the stops to make the show an immersive experience in beauty, and the acting is as fine as I’ve seen anywhere. If this production is representative of what’s in store for us in the coming year, Baltimore can look forward to a very impressive 2016/2017 season at Center Stage.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Content Advisory from Center Stage: This tale of revenge and betrayal focuses strongly on sex, sexual themes, and adult situations throughout. This production includes simulated sexual violence and nudity.