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Beginning with his first pass at directing Christopher Hampton’s award-winning adaptation while he was an undergrad at UNC Charlotte, Glenn Griffin has now piloted four versions of Choderlos de Laclos’ classic epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, to various Charlotte stages – with a rendezvous for a fifth voyage with In-Archway Productions already scheduled in the UK for next year. So as the current Queen City Theatre Company presentation begins its three-week run at Duke Energy Theatre in Spirit Square, theories are beginning to sprout up formulating scenarios that could result in Griffin actually freeing himself of his obsession with the work. A performer who participated in Griffin’s previous immersion in the Hampton script, when Griffin was still leading the Off-Tryon Theatre Company during the 2000-01 season, believes that Griffin will need to play the devilish Vicomte de Valmont himself before he can finally be done with the drama once and for all. She is probably right, since Valmont has long been a component of Griffin’s email address.
Needless to say, Griffin has deeply-held ideas about this script that have remained consistent over the years, which can be distilled into the “It’s All a Game” slogan on the playbill. In the Off-Tryon production and again in 2009, when Griffin switched to Dangerous, an all-male adaptation by Tom Smith that transported the action from 18th century France to 21st century England, the set design was distinguished by the chessboard beneath the players’ feet rather than what was behind them. Here the actors walk upon black and white tiles that have been configured more like a maze, but it’s still the chief feature of Kristian Wedolowski’s set design. And when Valmont’s nemesis/adversary/former paramour, the Marquise de Merteuil, is the first to walk on stage, she is carrying a chessboard with all the pieces set for a game, as ceremoniously as if she were Salomé bearing the head of John the Baptist to her father on a salver.
Dressed in a Barbi Van Schaick leather-and-lace costume design, Cynthia Farbman Harris makes an unmistakably saturnine impression as the Marquise. If anything, Wedolowski is even more satanic in his S&M gear as Valmont, which includes half of a miniskirt dangling from chains over his buttocks. Conversing with Madame de Volanges and her daughter Cecile, Merteuil hypocritically agrees that Valmont is despicable, but his station is so high that he cannot be debarred from polite society. When the Volangeses depart, Valmont and Merteuil make it abundantly clear that they are both lower life forms. For as they discuss how the just-departed ladies may be destroyed, they remind us of the floor design by slithering all over it, snakes that they are. Valmont has one problem with Merteuil’s proposition that he seduce the virgin Cecile and disgrace his mother. No, nearing the twilight of his notorious career, Valmont wants to take on the challenge of conquering Madame de Tourvel, a married woman of unspotted character, fidelity, virtue, charity, and spirituality. Amid their slitherings, caresses, and kisses, Valmont and Merteuil reach a pressurized concord: if he can succeed in both seductions, she will submit to a night of pleasures at his choosing. For Merteuil, malice and vengeance are mixed into her motives, but for Valmont, it’s purely a matter of sport and keeping up his self-conceit. Or so he thinks.
With two shapely leather-clad confederates acting as his spies and messengers, one of whom famously does double duty as his writing desk, Valmont’s orgy of sensuality is by no means limited to tutoring Cecile and wearing down the sublime Tourvel’s resistance. Merteuil is relatively continent, confining herself to the tutelage of young Danceny, the Chevalier who has captured Cecile’s heart against her mother’s mercenary wishes. That tiled floor, to be sure, gets thoroughly scuffed during all this wooing, conspiring, and teaching. But the game takes both Merteuil and Valmont into uncharted territory, rekindling their mutual admiration while enflaming their jealousies past the point of combustion.
The ritualized movements imposed by Griffin on his players add on layers of inevitability and grim fatality as Valmont charms and intrigues his way to triumph after triumph while Merteuil steers him toward his destruction. If you assume that the controlled form of their movements would straitjacket the actors or mute their power, you’ll be gratified by the outcome. The restrictive movements, often along the strict geometric lines of the stage floor, actually seem to add purposefulness – much in the same way that the leather corsets they wear bolster their shapes – and of course, the players’ oft-fondled erogenous zones become part of the subtext. Four years after his Dangerous stint as the gay Alex Valmont in Goth garb, Wedowlowski negotiates the rogue’s shift in sexual orientation with perfect aplomb. Whatever he has lost in his drift toward middle age, he has gained in the softening of his Uruguayan accent. Harris’ classical elegance, previously shown in her star turns as Maria Callas in Master Class and Fosca in Passion (her previous pairing with Wedolowski), flips almost shockingly into decadence here. But why shouldn’t a notorious debauchee be a diva?
Compared to these predatory lechers, their prey really do look like young innocent lambs. Both Amanda Berkowitz as Cecile and Grant Zavitkovsky as Danceny radiate purity in blandly fashionable outfits, telegraphing their corruptibility, while Robin Tynes comes wrapped in puritanical drabness as Tourvel, hair slightly slicked and parted. Pushing Griffin’s black-and-white conventions to their limits, Tynes is nearly guilty of wearing a color, and her Tourvel becomes progressively more desirable as she succumbs to corruption. All the young innocents do. More lusty and luscious are Aubrey Young and Emma Curtis as Valmont’s amorous S&M minions, equally delightful, though I rarely understood a word from Young’s lips. Upstanding men are curiously absent from Laclos’ dramatis personae, but Joanna Llambias and Ginger Heath ably supply the underpinnings of propriety, Llambias as Volanges more pompous and Heath as Rosmonde more worldly and wily.
We can almost empathize with Valmont, who discovers belatedly that he is capable of love, but he and Merteuil are so warped that we behold their downfalls with a mixture of horror and satisfaction. We watch the ravages and destruction of their sport, perhaps not realizing that we are being seduced as we watch. Otherwise, why would we feel sorry for Tourvel and her fractured relationship with the rake she has briefly redeemed? No doubt about it, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a devilish brew, intoxicating even after it has exploded.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses continues through Saturday, August 24. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.