There's charm and lust in this production, though the cruel intentions aren't razor sharp.
Staging a production of Dangerous Liaisons makes for some pretty big boots (and bustiers) to fill.
First off, there’s the well-known source material (18th-century French writer Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s scandalous novel Les Liasions Dangerouses and the Academy Award–winning film adaptation by playwright Christopher Hampton, which launched Uma Thurman’s career and further solidified Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfieffer as stars). Then there’s the ’90s cult classic adaptation, Cruel Intentions, a Clueless-style reworking that’s arguably best known for Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair’s onscreen makeout session.
Besides that, there’s Red One Theatre’s own reputation for titillation. The company has recently made a name for itself with productions at the Storefront Theatre that dealt with lust and betrayal, like the dark fairy story The Skriker and the Dora-nominated After Miss Julie. Other recent shows at Storefront Theatre, like Claire Burns’ new comedy Human Furniture or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have Storefront audiences accustomed to intimate and risqué fare.
So, does this latest production live up to those riveting expectations? Not quite, though the elements are there.
For those who’ve thus far not seen any of the iterations mentioned above, Dangerous Liaisons revolves around that now-familiar story trope of a bet between two initially callous characters—in this case, notorious lothario Valmont (Daniel Briere) and devious high-society maven the Marquise de Merteuil (an icy Claire Burns)—that hinges on the corruption of a morally upright woman, Madame de Tourvel (Karen Knox). The two master manipulators also collaborate on a side project, the ruin of naive virgin Cecile de Volanges (Caroline Toal) to spite her doting mother (Joy Tanner). The stakes in the main bet: if Valmont succeeds in seducing Tourvel, he’ll be granted a night of passion with Merteuil, who, it’s implied, may have been his first true love—though both characters have become jaded and cruel in the years since their courtship.
It’s that touch of cruelty that’s lacking somewhat in Briere’s Valmont, though he does possess the requisite amount of charm and guile. It’s a boyish charm that seems out of place when, for instance, he rapes young Cecile, who’s too easily convinced afterward by the Marquise that a continuing assignation would be advantageous. Without the right degree of (forgive us) dangerousness, Valmont’s slow reverse-corruption as he becomes “tainted” by Tourvel’s contagious conscience seems somewhat trite.
With Knox’s fine and subtle work as Tourvel, we see the progressive ebbing of the character’s defences as she succumbs to Valmont’s concerted seduction campaign. Briere’s Valmont, meanwhile, seems merely frustrated as his newfound morality begins to assert itself, which robs the play of some of its tragic impact—it is, after all, and unlike many variations since, a melodrama where no one’s happy by the denouement.
There’s still plenty to recommend in the show. Holly Lloyd’s sensuous costumes, with indeterminate period styling, were revealing enough to have us feeling guilty over wearing warm layers against the bitter cold outside. Characters are introduced, and have their own rudimentary themes via sound designer Jason O’Brien’s live upright bass playing, which added a warm touch. The in-the-round playing space is marked off by a chair in each corner and a chaise lounge usually at centre, which was plenty of room for all the action, save for a fencing bout that was slightly constrained. Brenhan McKibben’s complicit squire to Valmont is a brief but grounded turn, and Kat Letwin’s lusty maid (and later, courtesan) and Edward Charette’s oblivious young suitor to Cecile, were both lively supporting efforts. But while all these together make for a good show, the edge that’s lacking from Briere’s genial Valmont and, to a lesser extent, the pleasure Burns’s Marquise derives from causing others grief, keep the show in good but not great territory. It’s not a failure for director Jakob Ehman by any means, but it is a common failing in adapting the story.