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Armed and Seductive

Theater Review: Dangerous Liaisons


Published March 30, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

Christopher Hampton's Dangerous Liaisons finds a suitably elegant home at Shelburne Town Hall, where the recently formed Equinox Theatre Company is presenting the play. Set in the late 18th century, the story is familiar to many from the 1988 film adaptation, also written by Hampton. It recounts the elaborate sexual games of the decadent upper class on the eve of the French Revolution. Their favorite pastimes, at least in Hampton's envisioning, include deflowering virgins and corrupting the virtuous. Among the beautiful and powerful set, blackmail, bribery and deceit are commonplace. In this mine-filled social scene, a look or a word can ruin a reputation, and the result of one's illicit pursuits can be a matter of life and death.

Hampton's script creates a world where the immoral are entertained by manipulating the weak. He succeeds in implicating the viewer, because we, too, are entertained by the Marquise de Merteuil's ferocious thirst for success as she seeks out and destroys the unsuspecting and the chaste. We also find voyeuristic satisfaction in Vicomte de Valmont's sexual conquests.

Director Jana Beagley's production delightfully capitalizes on this implication by breaking down the boundaries between audience and cast. The path to Shelburne's Town Hall is illuminated with candles, and an escort -- decked out in period hose, breeches and mask, and speaking in a phony French accent -- accompanies you to the entrance. Once you have your ticket, similarly clad ushers lead you into the space and ask, "How would you like to be announced, Madame?" and then proceed to do so. Unfortunately they speak too softly, so this rather lukewarm execution of duties is lost in the pre-performance chitchat. Still, Beagley deserves credit for a creative attempt to engage the audience in the play's environment.

Among the ensemble, Wendy Huff stands out as the Marquise de Merteuil. She savors her character's vicious objectives and conveys enjoyment of the power she acquires by exploiting others. Huff easily commands the space with her voice and excellent sense of 18th-century manners. In a form-fitting bodice and swelling skirt, she weaves her webs of deceit with well-timed lifts of an eyebrow and seductive glances.

Paul Ugalde, who is also the fight director, plays the arch-manipulator Vicomte de Valmont -- the character played with such odious perfection by John Malkovich in the movie. Ugalde is a smooth seducer in sparkling brocades, but he doesn't quite express Valmont's wicked enjoyment of his sinful behavior. Nor does he fully explore the levels of performance written into this role. Valmont's deceptions demand a multilayered delivery. For instance, when he seduces the inexperienced Cecile by convincing her to duplicate her room key and provide him with a copy -- all under the guise of letter-carrier between the lady and her beloved -- Ugalde's Valmont seems sincere when he should be cool and calculating.

Meagan Walsh manages a suitably distressed Madame de Tourvel, the good girl dedicated to her husband but tempted beyond reason by Valmont's advances. However, she could convey her internal battle with greater complexity; her performance rarely touches the tension between the rules of polite society and the lure of raw passion. As a result, her eventual surrender to her seducer is somewhat unbelievable.

As Chevalier Danceny, Andrew Rash moons over the Marquise with wide-eyed affection, lying in her lap like a young boy in the first flush of love. At times his efforts to embody the fresh-faced, naïve Chevalier exceed what's necessary; Rash so perfectly looks the part, he really doesn't have to work so hard to convey Danceny's youthful zeal.

Laura Zingle hits the mark as Cecile, the clueless virgin taken by Valmont. And Kendra Gratton's iniquitous courtesan émilie delights with her sparkling eyes, wicked laugh and wriggling derrière.

Dangerous Liaisons has a cleverly constructed script inhabited by characters armed with agile tongues -- linguistic and sexual prowess are close bedfellows here. The text often demands a precision in performance akin to playing Restoration comedy, and the actors manage mountains of difficult language very well. But while individual scenes are well spoken, the cast does not always find the balance between delicate elocution and passion. As a result, sometimes scenes full of innuendo feel tame, and conversations drag.

Beagley must be commended for innovative staging: The actors use a small, raised proscenium stage at one end of the hall, as well as the floor in front of the stage. This brings the cast to the same level as -- and sometimes even into -- the audience. However, anyone sitting past the first three rows has difficulty seeing many of the key moments played on the lower level, including decisive seductions and the play's climactic duel. The director's desire to use Town Hall creatively should be extended to the seating arrangement in order to enhance sight lines. For example, using more of the Hall for performance and placing the audience on two or three sides would significantly improve the theater-going experience. It would also eliminate the need for awkward scene changes by creating distinct spaces for the play's various locales.

Even in light of these criticisms, Dangerous Liaisons provides an enjoyable evening with a group of irresistibly sexy characters. The new Equinox Theatre Company claims to embrace risk and innovation. For the most part, they succeed in doing so with this production.