There was inevitably one major conversation at Antaeus Theatre‘s post-performance opening night celebration for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and it began with the hashtag, #MeToo.
Ugh if you dare, but Antaeus’ production of this pre-(French)-Revolution plot will take the wit out of your tongue and the wind out of your eye-rolling sails long before the chilling end. More than ever, it’s a play for our time.
As hoped by Antaeus Co-Artistic Director Bill Brochtrup, Director Robin Larsen has deliberately gone for a realer approach to rape and sexual harassment, and given the current celebrity producer/entertainer news events, the choice is smack on the timeline.
One might recall the highly memorable 1988 film version of this story, where innocent Cécile de Volanges played by a young, Uma Therman is violently seduced into giving up her virginity to the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), which not so later on becomes such a sexual awakening for Cécile, that she begins to not only become comfortable with Valmont’s regular attention but rather enjoys playing the intrigue. And then Valmont’s unexpected love for a conquest and repentance for all the harm done in the name of delight.
This production of Christopher Hampton’s play adapted from the 1782 novel of the same title by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, is nothing like that. Not even close.
The plot focuses on the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, rivals who use sex as a weapon of humiliation and degradation, all the while enjoying their cruel games. Their targets are the virtuous (and married) Madame de Tourvel and Cécile de Volanges, a young girl who has fallen in love with her music tutor, the Chevalier Danceny. In order to gain their trust, Merteuil and Valmont pretend to help the secret lovers so they can use them later in their own treacherous schemes.
Here Larsen employs a superior, accurate script. (Antaeus Libertines cast) A more cruel Le Vicomte de Valmont (Henri Lubatti); a far colder, self-possessed La Marquise de Merteuil (Reiko Aylesworth) playing for higher stakes than just petty revenge; a less laughably hysterical, very practical Madame de Volanges (Dylan Jones); a rather wretched, amoral Chevalier Danceny (Josh Breslow) and a distinctly naive, completely non-sexualized Cécile (Elizabeth Rian), who is so innocent of her own body, she tragically, by all accounts of her cloistered convent upbringing and instructions in purity from her mother, doesn’t even possess a language, conceptual idea or defense for forced penetration, ongoing molestation, PTSD, depression, unwanted pregnancy or sudden miscarriage.
And then there is La President de Tourvel (also known as Madame de Tourvel) played by Lindsay LaVanchy. When last we saw LaVanchy it was at The Fountain Theatre in Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll, in the title role, burning up the stage with unbridled emotion. She is even more emotionally available here. And her vulnerability to Valmont’s love, combatted with diligent resistance, reveals Valmont’s vileness to new heights.
There are so few empathetic moments in this absolutely riveting play, except where they belong – with the victims. The corrupt depravity of the game is cold-blooded. Cécile and Tourvel seem to pay the ultimate sacrifices in the initial outcome.
But, as history would have it, the end for all of them is more imminent than they realize. And none will survive.
Very Highly Recommended
Accolades for the utterly gorgeous elements within this production:
Scenic & Projection Designer: Yee Eun Nam
Costume Designer: Jocelyn Hublau Parker
Lighting Designer: Leigh Allen
Composer & Sound Designer: Jeff Polunas
Props Designer: Erin Walley
Violence Designer: Ned Mochel
Production Stage Manager: Chad West
Photo (above) by Geoffrey Wade Photography: Reiko Aylesworth and Henri Lubatti