Love is something you use, not something you fall into. Though should you choose to use your love of theatre to fall into one of the 68 seats inside The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre between now and the 19th of June you may just fall in love with what’s on the stage. Swordplay— of two distinctive varieties, once of which includes actual rapiers— scandal, sin; all of these delicious morsels are yours for the taking if you dare the three-hour theatrical endeavor that is Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Directed by Erin Riley, this Christopher Hampton play— adapted from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos— delivers conspicuously concealed charm laced daintily with spools of seduction. A scintillating drama with all the hallmarks of a scrumptious bodice-ripping historical fiction, the dancing alone is worth the lengthy run-time.
The production is populated with potent performances, particularly from the leading man, and on the whole is worthy of attending though it is not without its struggles, the biggest of which is the pacing. Though Director Erin Riley is clever in camouflaging the scenic change artists— Major Domo (Bambi Galore and J. Purnell Hargrove, who take turns attempting to upstage one another in the crossfades) and Adele (Jenny Hasselbusch, who plays along with the other two quite nicely)— as household servants who do have improvised interactions with the show’s main characters— in addition to some rather outlandishly fabulous livery— the changeovers that occur at the trio’s hands are somewhat less than smooth. Sound Editor and Designer Jacqueline Chenault has some difficulty in finding the appropriate length of readily available musical coverage for these moments as well.
Despite the elongated scenic shifts, the action of the scenes themselves flows relatively quickly. Riley’s use of dance, however, feels a bit out of sync with the play on the whole. There are moments where Melissa McGinley’s Choreography fits the exacting flow of the show and other moments where it feels as if it is prolonging an already tiresome pace, but this is a matter of when and where the dance routines are placed, not the dances themselves. McGinley’s choreography is striking, emotionally inspiring, and illuminated to perfection by Lighting Designer Justin Thillman. Each scenic dance captures a different romantic essence— the dance shared by the two ingénues reflecting that of deer frolicking gaily through a springtime meadow, the opening sequence a display of pure ardor driven by predatory need. With a variety of ballet-inspired movements, including lifts and various vertical levels of interplay, McGinley’s routines please the palette in an array of exquisite experiences. The pièce de résistance? The quartet of femme fatales encircling Valmont, each displaying their own breed of carnality in his general direction to a racy, thrumming beat; the routine could best be described as an orgasmic orgy of ostentatious proportion, a slew of sinful seductions that penetrate the eyes of the onlooker with great ease.
Concocting a unique sense of style to disorient the senses, Costume Designer Amy Rawe Weimer and Make-Up Artist and Hair Consultant Lexi Martinez upend the more traditional fashion styles of the French 1780’s and venture into cosplay territory that fuses minimalist steampunk fantasy gear with aristocratic accoutrements to create a garish yet titillating aesthetic. Including the gender-bent wardrobe for the Major Domo characters, Weimer and Martinez seem to take various inspirations from decadent desserts, leaving characters like Madame de Volanges looking like a piquant peach parfait and Adele like Strawberry Shortcake turned street-walking strumpet. It is surprising to see how very little attention is paid to Valmont’s vestments, however the character and all of his tantalizing treachery covers what is lacking in his careless couture.
There is something to be said for a cameo appearance, like the valet that knows his standing in the grander scheme of things. In this case, Azolan (Brian Douglas) is exactly that cameo. Douglas’ character is experienced only briefly and only ever in direct discourse with Valmont, but his brief exchanges are delivered with the subtlest exchanges of sardonic wit, adding a crisp albeit subtle levity to the situation. Madame de Rosemonde (Ruta Douglas Smith) and Madame de Volanges (Kay-Megan Washington) are also among the cameo performances worth mentioning, with Washington’s bubbleheaded helicopter-mothering antics being high on the praiseworthy list for caricature delivers and speech affectations. Emilie (Kerry Brady), though existing as a mere courtesan, gives a memorable performance not because of her bodily exposure but because of her willingness to play the scene in earnest, making for a most humorous encounter with the Vicomte.
A period melodrama is nothing without its ingénues, and while dainty Cecile (Jacqueline Chenault) and Danceny (Jeffrey L. Springtree Gangwisch) have their idyllic entanglement— witnessed only ever in the inter-scenic dance they share— it is their relationship with others in the production that define their performances. Gangwisch is somewhat starry-eyed and eager, a youth in full sexual bloom if masked by his initial demure interactions. It’s the sword-play that befalls Gangwisch (conducted rigorously by Fight Choreographer Mike Martin) that makes his performance most noteworthy. Chenault is a vibrant mover, as displayed numerous times in the inter-scenic dance routines as well as during a particular encounter with Valmont. Keeping her emotional delivery heightened, Chenault traverses a great deal of varying pathos throughout the performance, which entices the audience to commiserate in her various plights.
La Presidente de Tourvel (Katharine Vary) is a woman, like all the women in the performance, whose character is defined by her relationship with Valmont. Vary is emotionally present consistently throughout the performance. Her emotional extremes, however, jump immediately from rest to the height of her vocal and expressive range with no progression between and her tantrums are delivered at an ear-splitting shrillness that results in them feeling somewhat contrived. Despite the incessant histrionic outbreaks, Vary does create earnest moments of believable passion, remorse, and utter bewilderment when it comes to her encounters with Valmont and these on the whole redeem the less tolerable moments crafted by her character.
Never a more ferocious game of cat and mouse did exist upon the stage than that played by Le Marquise de Merteuil (Melissa McGinley) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Nathan Parry.) Ruthless in her pursuit of gaining and keeping the upper hand, McGinley— though at times delivered in an offhandedly modern manner— purports a heartless wretch hell-bent on maintaining her dominance both over the man himself and the situations surrounding him. Unrelenting in her antagonistic ways, McGinley savors each moment that she shifts the rules of the game between Merteuil and Valmont. Cheeky and unforgiving in her anfractuous approach to bending the Vicomte to her whim and will, McGinley is the true serpent in this tale. When jealousy comes into play the rules of the game shift dramatically and her cool demeanor descends rapidly into a furious flurry of fetid rage and unsettlingly low blows.
Parry, as the silver-tongued Casanova, possesses multiple flavors of passion, each more potent and poisonous than the previous. Seduction is not only an art form perfected in Parry’s performance, it’s a visually articulated entity featured during his dance work, with every new routine shifting his character’s ardor from one vein of lust to the next. With an insatiably voracious sexual appetite, Parry thrusts his character into stimulatingly sensual moments with each of the four females (in no particular order the aforementioned Emilie, Cecile, Tourvel, and Merteuil) and the result is breathtaking. Holding a spine-tingling presence upon the stage in his acting scenes, Parry’s dancing is all the more impressive because of the way he fully embodies each of the symbols represented in the routines. His brutal dance with Chenault is all but rape personified; the prowl of a lascivious hunter on full display in his opening routine shared with McGinley. Striking, mesmerizing, and utterly irresistible, Parry makes Les Liaisons Dangereuses the hottest thing in entertainment since 50 Shades of Grey took to the silver screen.
If it is remembered rightly, all advice in these matters is useless, except in the advice dispensed herein, which is to forget the lengthy run time, pray for tighter scene changes, and enjoy the absolute daylights (and evening lights) out of this incredibly sensual production.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission
Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays through June 19, 2016 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.