Les Liaisons Dangereuses is British playwright Christopher Hampton's 1965 dramatization of the Laclos novel published in 1782 describing the French aristocracy's licentious indulgences. Such 18th-century indulgences can be viewed in Colonial Players' current production, at which opera glasses may be useful for a closer view of the Chevalier Danceny au naturel.
In two pages of director's notes, Craig Allen Mummey explains that Laclos chronicled the pre-revolutionary libertine behavior of actual members of the aristocracy, noting that "today people still use sex as a weapon, a sport or a religion" much as those 18th-century libertines did. This rococo period was a time when, Mummey says, "manners largely took the place of morals, with adultery nearly a virtue and jealousy uncouth," later adding that "amidst this decadence we find Valmont and Merteuil at the height of their powers as the play begins."
Unusual at Colonial Players, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, because of its subject matter and partial nudity, is not geared toward families. Colonial Players recommends this show for adult audiences only.
As in most Colonial Players productions, skilled staging features quickly changed scenes, resulting in minimal dark time. Strong visual appeal is created by lead costumer Linda Swann, whose period costumes reflect each actor's persona down to the color as designated by the Seven Deadly Sins.
The appropriately garbed cast members are largely convincing as 18th-century French aristocrats, comfortably the era. Rooted in hedonistic triviality, the protagonists offer little to sympathize with or care about. Both the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are game players determined to seduce and heartlessly destroy. Merteuil asks Valmont to seduce her former lover's convent-educated young fiancee, Cecile. At first refusing because he would find the task "too easy," Valmont, whose next target is the virtuous and married Madame de Tourvel, consents only after Cecile's mother, Madame de Volanges, annoys him.
In the leading role of the Marquise de Merteuil, Andrea Elward fits in well in the 18th century in her jewel-adorned costume. Shrewdly in control, she enjoys her dangerous game. Letter-perfect in delivering extensive dialogue, Elward might lack only a sprinkling of her character's iciness to counteract her innate warmth.
Valmont, Merteuil's adversary and master of the double-entendre, is played by John Halmi, who becomes a Lothario capable of winning such diverse women as the Marquise, young Cecile - who will become his eager sensual student - and the devoted wife Madame de Tourvel, who is eventually ensnared by Valmont. Only with this last conquest does Halmi's Valmont begin to experience love.
Becki Placella is astonishing as Madame de Tourvel, confined in her stiff costume. She fears Valmont before becoming susceptible to his ardent protestations of love. When Tourvel finally succumbs to Valmont, it unleashes a torrential outpouring of emotion. When Valmont later rejects this honorable woman, her destruction is shattering.
Cecile, as played by Avra Sullivan, becomes Valmont's eager and apt student, projecting an uninhibited and captivating sensual joy.
Playing Cecile's mother, Madame Volanges, Sue Struve conveys her character's confusion and maternal protectiveness along with an enigmatic quality that signals some cynicism toward her friend Merteuil.
Heidi Toll makes the most of the small but important role of Valmont's aged aunt, Madame de Rosemonde, summing up the knowledge of her peers gained over a lifetime.
Jeff Sprague plays the servant Azolan with an interesting combination of humility and arrogance.
Josette Dubois steams up a few scenes as the courtesan Emilie.
As Chevalier Danceny, Jeremy McKoon is a likable, passive and trusting young man who wins in the end. McKoon displays fencing expertise in a prolonged sword fight with Halmi.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses continues on weekends Thursdays through Sundays through Feb. 28, with a matinee today at 2 p.m. Call 410-268-7373 for tickets.