The story of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” or “Dangerous Liaisons,” originated in a 1782 French novel by a military officer named Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. He structured his tale of lust and greed as a series of letters between two bored and devious aristocrats, and although the novel was an immediate smash, it also was met with considerable scandal: Marie Antoinette supposedly owned a personalized copy, but she requested the cover be left blank.
And it’s obvious that the story still maintains a fascination with contemporary audiences. It has been adapted and repurposed many times in the centuries since its debut, most notably in an acclaimed 1985 play by Christopher Hampton. (That play was later made into an Oscar-winning film starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer.) Hampton’s show made its way to the Spokane Civic Theatre’s stage this weekend, and its bawdy, innuendo-laced drawing room gossip remains guiltily entertaining.
“Dangerous Liaisons” focuses on the bizarre friendship between two jaded libertines, the Marquise de Merteuil (Josephine Keefe) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Dyck), whose ideas of parlor games are emotional manipulation and sexual degradation.
As the play opens, the marquise has called upon Valmont to pursue the young, virginal Cecile de Volanges (Rushele Herrmann), who is fresh from the convent and is being pursued by a man who recently spurned the marquise. Valmont, at the marquise’s instruction, is to seduce the young woman, therefore thwarting her hopes for marriage.
But Valmont shifts his lustful focus to the religiously steadfast Madame de Tourvel (Nichole Dumoulin), whom he plans to get into bed despite her vocal objections. “I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage and still not be able to stop herself,” Valmont tells the marquise. “I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her.”
Even though the marquise and Valmont employ their own methods of seduction on others, they’re really seducing one another: If Valmont provides proof of his romantic conquests in writing, the marquise will give herself over to him. But there’s a further complication when it becomes apparent that Valmont’s increasingly zealous displays of affection toward Madame de Tourvel are becoming genuine.
Director Keith Dixon’s version of “Liaisons” avoids confining its story to a specific era: The characters mention that the ’90s are approaching, but they could as easily be referring to the 1790s as the 1990s. That makes the production visually distinctive: The set is defined by monolithic concrete slabs and minimalistic furnishings, the costumes and makeup have a brazenly colored steampunk flair (Dixon says he has drawn inspiration from “The Hunger Games” movie franchise). Scene changes are soundtracked by songs you’ll no doubt recognize – “Mad World” by Tears for Fears, “Walking on Broken Glass” by Annie Lennox and, quite humorously, “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
The actors in the Civic’s cast are similarly multifarious in that they never explicitly articulate where the characters’ romantic loyalties lie. This show is carried along by a trio of strong performances – Dyck as the smarmy Valmont, who has the potential for empathy, Dumoulin as the vulnerable woman swept along in a game of betrayal and Keefe as the icy femme fatale who licks her lips as man after helpless man becomes ensnared in her web. Hampton’s script doesn’t give the actors much of a break – it’s wall-to-wall dialogue, often flowery in its language – which makes the work all the more impressive.
Even though most of “Dangerous Liaisons” focuses on Valmont’s schemes, it’s the marquise who emerges as the most complex and fascinating character of the piece. In a world of strict social constructs and rigid moral code, she relishes shattering every precept, which is most certainly a product of her suffocating social environment. “Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men,” the marquise explains to Valmont. “I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.”
The characters in “Dangerous Liaisons” spend much of their free time (and they have a lot of free time) at the opera house, but they don’t seem to realize they inhabit a world as morally twisted and melodramatic as any opera. On its surface, the show is about sexual one-upsmanship, about heaving bosoms and sidelong glances, and grand but empty romantic gestures. But it works best as a cat and mouse game between genders, a wickedly dark comedy about a devious woman who refuses to be marginalized by a culture that wants her to be nothing but an ornament.
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