Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Nov 22, 2013
02:32 PM
Stage Write

Bedroom Games in APT's 'Liaisons'

Bedroom Games in APT's 'Liaisons'

PHOTO BY CARISSA DIXON

Tracy Michelle Arnold and Jim DeVita scheme and smolder in APT's 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses.'

American Players Theatre’s sly and seductive staging of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is, as you’d expect, packed with sensuality, intrigue and characters you wouldn’t trust to watch your slice of coffee cake, let alone your romantic and reputational interests.  

But it also features one of those responses that every parent, even ones without a pretty fifteen-year-old daughter about to enter adult society, has probably uttered. Madame Volange (Barbara Zahora)—she’s the one with the daughter—stumbles a little when her Cecile (Melisa Pereyra) asks about the apparent inconsistencies of the French society her dear mama inhabits  “We’re all aware of them,” Madame says, "We all deplore them. And in the end, we all accommodate them.”

To what degree is one of several intriguing aspects in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s classic epistolary novel. Hampton’s razor-sharp script served as the basis of the Oscar-nominated 1988 flick with Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich and Glenn Close (not to mention the 1999 CW-ready update Cruel Intentions), and it’s easy to see why it’s so enduring. Liaisons hones in on the schemings of the Vicomte de Valmont (Jim DeVita) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Tracy Michelle Arnold). Bored out of their upper-class gourds by the vagaries of their leisurely lives, these two delight.

Merteuil wants Valmont to humiliate a lover who’s spurned her by deflowering his young intended—the as-yet innocent Cecile. To him, this is trifle—he’s got his sights set on conquering the uber-virtuous Madame de Tourvel  (Laura Rook). For the chance to re-bed Mertreuil, perhaps the only woman in his sphere who could match and understand him, he agrees to tackle both.

Arnold and DeVita’s potent onstage chemistry, so recently on display in this summer’s taut Antony and Cleopatra gets another workout here, but in a much more focused manner. Both are utterly comfortable in their roles. A single whorl of gray snakes through Arnold’s  otherwise auburn tresses, suggesting, to anyone who’s paying attention—and most of the characters here aren’t—that she’s a dangerous and deceptive enemy. DeVita, decked in silver finery as if to match the color of his tongue, hardly has to strain to capture Valmont’s carnal rakishness.

These two are monsters, but they’re funny, witty and catty monsters, and Hampton’s script gracefully nudges the audience to like them and laugh along as the intrigues deepen and double back on one another. At least until the scene when Valmont manipulates and rather, um, handily instructs the teenage Cecile in the pleasures of the bedroom. This is new, mature ground for APT to tread, and the actors don’t shy from it in the slightest.  

“I sometimes wonder how you managed to invent yourself,” muses Valmot to Mertreuil in one of the play’s best interchanges. “I had no choice,” she snaps. Director Brenda DeVita’s on record as being fascinated by this particular historical age, and in particular the ways it denied women power and trapped them into restrictive roles. Merteuil’s a fascinating example of a woman who found ways to bend the system to her will, and Arnold’s keen skill is to make us feel the triumph—and eventual devastating tragedy—of the choices and betrayals she’s made. The crux of the play is watching these two master manipulators, so confident in their ability to deceive, realize, to their utter horror, that they’re not nearly as in control of their emotions and situations as they believed.

The staging is downright gorgeous, filled with subtle and striking touches that augment the story. When Valmont seduces Cecile, one of the golden chandeliers above him begins to spin slowly, echoing his hypnotic effect on her. The back of the stage is lined with ornate and labyrinthine pillars, allowing for characters to eavesdrop and for some striking tableaux in the second act.

There are a few false steps. In the scene in which Madame De Tourvel finally relents to Valmont’s advances, DeVita’s still pulling hammy faces to the crowd at her almost-too-breathless professions of love. It’s good for a few more laughs, yes, but there’s supposed to be an emotional tension here—Valmont’s playing and deceiving, yes, but he’s also struggling against real feelings of (gasp!) love, and DeVita’s mugging drastically undercuts that.  Hurts to say it, but there’s also not much in Rook’s portrayal of Tourvel that suggests she’s a woman Valmont would risk his soul—and social standing—to possess.

Liaisons is like an early holiday present, a meaty and entertaining drama shouldered in between the end of the regular Touchstone season and 2014. As Brenda DeVita’s directorial debut in the space, it suggests this is going to be a space to watch, a space where APT’s going to chase its dramatic muses in some very interesting directions. Seems safe to say they’ll have a confident hand at the artistic director’s wheel.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses runs through November 24 in APT’s Touchstone Theatre. For more information, visit americanplayers.org.  

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
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