The French aristocrats at the center of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (translation: “Dangerous Liaisons”) are as bored as they are vicious, and their idea of entertainment is to seduce young, impressionable suitors, string them along and eventually destroy them emotionally.
That shrewd premise originates from a 1782 novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and it was reintroduced to modern audiences via Christopher Hampton’s acclaimed 1985 stage adaptation. That show, which featured the late Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in its original cast, was later turned into an Oscar-winning feature film starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer.
It’s obviously the kind of show that attracts (and requires) excellent actors; various revivals have starred the likes of Dominic West, Laura Linney, Janet McTeer and Hugo Weaving. The Spokane Civic Theatre premieres its take on Hampton’s play this weekend, and director Keith Dixon said his small cast is loaded with strong performers.
“I’ve got a really good cast,” Dixon said. “They bring something very interesting to the table, and they’ve been a lot of fun to work with. And they’re just good individuals – good people playing people behaving badly.”
The most amoral of these characters is the Marquise de Merteuil (Josephine Keefe), who, along with her former lover the Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Dyck), treats others like game pieces in a debauched chess match. Having turned their respective romantic conquests into a sort of competition, the marquise sends the vicomte to seduce the new fiancee of a man who has spurned her, and she hopes it will thwart the planned marriage.
But vicomte has more duplicitous intentions: He’s smitten with the married Madame de Tourvel (Nichole Dumoulin), and the vicomte’s dual seduction eventually turns him against the marquise, who may still harbor feelings for him. It’s the kind of breathless, whirligig plot that would be right at home in a modern soap opera.
“We look at these characters and sometimes we’re fascinated by their humor, and sometimes we’re fascinated by the grotesque,” Dixon said. “There’s an extreme nature to them. It’s people with too much time on their hands.”
The marquise is one of fiction’s most deliciously devious antagonists, indiscriminately tearing through her suitors without regard for decorum or compassion. But she’s not without her complexities: She’s damaged and takes her self-loathing out on others, which makes her a particularly fascinating and complex literary figure.
“I don’t think we should feel sorry for her; she’s the villainess, for sure,” Dixon said. “But we have to, at some point, empathize with these characters, because otherwise, what’s the point? … We’ve spent a lot of time finding the humanity in (the marquise), and finding those moments where the audience sees how she’s been hurt by Valmont. She does love him, but she can’t necessarily bring herself to say that. She’s a puppet master, and it catches up with her.”
Dixon hasn’t taken the traditional, buttoned-down approach with his production: He says he’s implemented anachronistic music, soundtracking the show with ’80s pop songs, and the sets and costumes combine the aesthetics of 1780s France and something out of “The Hunger Games.”
And if that seems like a stretch, Dixon points out that there are a surprising number of parallels between the pre-Revolutionary France of “Dangerous Liaisons” and the post-apocalyptic universe of Suzanne Collins’ best-seller.
“You’ve got a society that’s ripe for revolution; the excess and the opulence are so rampant,” Dixon explained. “These people have nothing better to do than destroy each other for sport. This is what happens when we do not treat each other well, when we lose our humanity and our compassion.”