Give The Theatre at Anne Arundel Community College credit for refusing to play it safe, for going out on a theatrical limb in its choice of productions.
Last spring’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as complex and raucous as any musical you’ll see, was a case in point. The current Les Liaisons Dangereuses is another example of the theater’s propensity for asking itself, and its audiences, to stretch beyond their comfort zones.
You may know Les Liaisons Dangereuses from the 1988 movie with John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close. That was just one of several adaptations of French author Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel of the same name. The novel described the dangerous manipulations of former lovers Le Vicomte de Valmont and La Marquise de Merteuil, two aristocrats who treat love, lust and the feelings of their prey as little more than their own little chess game, with human hearts and bodies as the pieces on their board.
Valmont wants to seduce Madame de Tourvel, the virtuous wife whose husband is out of town. Merteuil, meanwhile, is angry because Cécile Volanges has been pulled out of the convent to marry a former lover. When Valmont falls in love with de Tourvel, Marteuil becomes jealous. She and Valmont turn their fantasy league into a battleground of the sexes, winner take all. Hearts are broken and lives destroyed.
Revealing too much of the plot would reveal too much of what is designed to keep you as interested in these two players as you are disgusted by their hubris. The bottom line is that these are nasty people, inflicting their nastiness onto others as sport. Director Kristen Clippard, whose previous work you may have seen locally with the Annapolis Shakespeare Company, does an admirable job taking us back to the 1700s. The pace moves right along, from the characters’ dialogue to the tightly choreographed scene changes.
The set is ingenious, majestic and beautiful. Instead of the usual painted flats, we have regal gilded frames flanking see-through material that not only allows us to observe the comings and goings of characters but also provides cleverly lit placement of two bedchambers and a climactic sword fight. Costumes are as beautiful as the set; clearly no expense was spared in securing era-appropriate finery.
As Valmont and Merteuil, Erik Alexis and Aladrian Wetzel do a credible job keeping the pace of a dialogue-heavy piece. Their back-and-forth helps the audience understand the machinations they are planning. Each does a nice job enunciating, critical in a piece translated from French.
But the spark needed to help the audience believe that these two are former lovers was missing, as was the maliciousness that should underlie their immoral string-pulling. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, and subsequent performances will see them relax into the calculating chemistry the two must share with the audience.
The supporting cast is solid overall, though in several cases, as with the leads, a little more emotional connection would help link individual performances with the whole. Especially natural in their roles are Natalie Carlisle as de Tourvel, giving us the virtue and uncertainty of one of the few women who, at least at first, is able to fend off Valmont’s advances, and Kat McKerrow as Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont’s aunt.
This is a show worth seeing, beautiful visually, with Clippard and the cast doing a fine job keeping things moving. All that’s needed is for some of the cast to sink their teeth into what drives these multi-dimensional characters, and to connect with each other. This, in turn, will strengthen their connection with the audience, so that we can feel the inherent danger of these dangerous liaisons.
2.5 hours with intermission. Playing thru Nov. 16: Th 7:30pm, FSa 8pm; Su 2pm at Robert E. Kauffman Theater at AACC Pascal Center, Arnold; $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-777-2457; firstname.lastname@example.org.