The 1782 novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" ("Dangerous Liaisons") by Choderlos de Laclos paints a damning portrait of two French aristocrats engaged in a chess match of seduction, manipulation, betrayal and revenge.
Playwright Christopher Hampton's 1985 adaptation underlines the libertine nature of the original, which helps explain why Center Stage's revival of this theatrical version carries an advisory: "This production includes simulated sexual violence and nudity."
The season-opening venture, marking the company's return to its still-under-renovation building on Calvert Street after a season of temporary residency at Towson University, arrives at a time when the themes pulsating through "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" have fresh relevance.
"Sexual abuse is such a big part of the conversation today," says Center Stage associate artistic director Hana S. Sharif, the director of the production, which opens Friday after a week of preview performances.
"I've tried to approach every moment of seduction, sex and violence in this play with its elemental truth. There was a lot of conversation [in rehearsals] about how we would stage those scenes, how to be honest to the text, but still be aware of a 21st-century disposition. Our job is not to redefine or water down the journey."
There is more than mere sex in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." The plot revolves around the competition between former lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, who challenge each other to plot how to seduce — and thus destroy the reputations of — two unsuspecting women. Complications from this cruel pursuit leave no one unscarred.
"This play is not really about sexual violence, but revenge," Sharif says. "I see it as a clash of titans, a game of gods. I see Valmont as one of the gods who falls from Olympus when he gains his humanity. Even though we watch two people do monstrous things, Hampton shows an understanding of the depth of their pain. Both characters get their comeuppance. Valmont literally loses his life. And in winning at the end, the Marquise has completely undone her world. [The other characters] find a level of solace, though not joy."
The historical context of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" adds other layers of interest to Sharif.
"Everywhere you look, we're walking a razor-thin edge between chaos and order, revolution and war," the director says. "And there has been no greater gap between the haves and have-nots since the time of the French Revolution. I was thinking about all of this a year ago, before Brexit or anything else. I was very interested in the comparison between the times of the play and today, and making the story relevant to the 21st century."
Back when Center Stage started putting together its 2016-2017 season, there was no inkling that "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" would show up on Broadway this fall. But it did, and that production, which stars Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber, is scheduled to close early in January. It is not uncommon for the rights to a play to be withdrawn from companies within a wide radius of Broadway when a revival is scheduled there.
"We were very fortunate they did not do that," Sharif says. "That made all of us very happy. These are two very different productions, very different takes on the play. Ours is perhaps a bit more abstract, but it's beautiful and helps illuminate the game at play. I was very much drawn to the chess game image as I was building the show, which I think will be reflected in the set [designed by Michael Carnahan]."
Producing "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" while much of Center Stage undergoes renovation has added extra pressure.
The biggest transformation is being done to the lobby, the upstairs Head Theater and several other parts of the facility; the results will be unveiled in 2017. Although the primary performance venue, the Pearlstone Theater, is largely unaffected by the renovations, getting access to the space is tricky.
"You see right away when you arrive that it is a very construction-y construction zone," Sharif says. "But when you get inside the Pearlstone, you see this is the Center Stage we're used to. The audience will know they are coming back home."