Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Dangerous Liaisons"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Larry Stark

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
@ The Hovey Players

by Christopher Hampton

Directed by Kristin Hughes

Set & Lighting Designed & Executed by John MacKenzie & Michele Boll
Costume Design by Kimmerie H.O. Jones
Master Seamstress Elise Westmeyer
Wigs by Judy Disbrow
Properties by Kristin Hughes
Sound/Music Design by Alex French
Fight Choreography by Chris Cardoni
Producers Michelle Aguillon & Michael Tonner
Stage Manager Joe Domina

La Marquise de Merteuil......Melissa Sine
Vicomte de Valmont............Jason Beals
Madame de Tourval..............Sara Jones
Cecile de Volanges.............Ann Freund
Madame de Volanges..........Leslie Wagner
Chevalier de Danceny..........Andy O'Kane
Azolan.......................Chris Wagner
Emilie......................Kristin Shoop
Madame de Rosemonde........Sandi McDonald
Major Domo...................Steve Folven

Friday/Saturday, 13/14 January, '06
In these past two evenings I have confirmed my suspicions that the bigger and more expensive theater productions get here in Boston, the less they are worth the prices of admission nor the attention of those paying them. The price for one of the 52 seats in Hovey Players' Abbott Memorial cubbyhole is $15, while the orchestra seat I sat in at the Huntington's B U Theatre normally costs $65 (only the last row of their balcony goes for $15). I can think of nothing the people paying an extra fifty bucks got for their money --- save the illusion of excellence.

Well, there Is more space, of course. Faced with the problem of putting an intimate play on a big barn of a stage, James Noone provided a single room, and wrapped around and over it a fantasy-flight of staircases to nowhere. Then, given this dove-grey staircase, Director Daniel Goldstein was forced to use it, giving characters long, moody exits or entrances, and even for one scene, staircase-sex. In general, the stairs and the space served to separate the Huntington actors who, when not declaiming their arias thoughtfully and directly to the audience, threw an occasional bon mot over a shoulder at the person supposedly being spoken with.

One would think that the little Hovey stage would feel a want of space, but this is never the case there. Those playing the deviously lascivious schemers (Melissa Sine & Jason Beals) converse like two old lovers sharing luscious secrets, their faces so close that to be closer they must kiss. And there a chaise, repositioned and with a sheet, becomes a bed --- Voila! When the stage-space and the audience-space are almost equal, every detail has value. The avoidance of an offered kiss, seen so close even from the back row, can cause more pain that a slapped cheek --- and, at Hovey it does. Director Kristin Hughes sees to that.

Then there are costumes. Admittedly, the huge Huntington budget paid for yards and yards of gowns farthingaled to a fair-thee-well. (A courtesan, undressing for work, at one point dropped what seemed two fire-buckets hung under her skirts from each hip!) Gowns were less clothing than sculpture, one high-necked to the very chin but backless behind, one festooned with big brass buttons on a slut-red vinyl bodice --- while the male lead appeared first in boots and a long pin-striped coat that made him look like a Mississippi river-boat gambler. And then at one point an eager ex-virgin tested the tension of a new bed by jumping delightedly upon it --- totally in the nude.

The Hovey costumes, designed by Kimmerie Jones and built by Elise Westmeyer, mirror the ambivalent mores of the period --- 1782. Square scoop-necks barely contain passionate bosoms while floor-length falls of fabric, padded a bit on each hip, conceal the fact that, in the France of 1782, bloomers had not yet been invented. The gentlemen, though, show stockinged calves below toreador-trousers revealed under gold-brocade coats and wigs as elaborate as women's. They are the roosters gaudily promenading before their fluttering flock.

Christopher Hampton's play, dramatizing Cholderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel, begins and ends with three elegant women playing at cards, and at several points characters expand the metaphor of games to those of sex, seduction, cuckoldry, passion, and --- as a last resort --- love. The widowed Madame Merteuil and the reprobate Valmont, who have eschewed mere sex to fan a friendship in which they reveal to one another their most scandalous achievements and plans, employ one another to aid in their schemes and to deceive the objects of their lusts. Valmont considers that a Madame de Tourvel, chaste even in the absence of her husband and determined to stay that way, presents a landmark challenge to a determined and honey-mouthed libertine. La Merteuil, miffed at a former lover, asks Valmont to deflower the man's empty-headed fiancee as a revenge on him. There is a penniless young man hopelessly infatuated with this virgin --- but the plotting pair are determined that the course of true love never will run smooth.

In a sense, the play is Moliere with people. Smoldering under the central pair's plots is an unavoidable urge to renew their lust for one another that makes their posturing, their moves and counter-moves, merely means to make themselves more admirable in each other's eyes. However, as plots progress, there are two levels, two tones and subtones and overtones working, at least out in Waltham. At one point Valmont and Tourvel break from their surface-jousting over morality and virtue and lust to see love --- actual love! --- of each other in one another. This is, to Merteuil, the ultimate sin, and she demands he choose which sort of "love" he prefers: her, familiar, kind or this other, new one.

It's at that point in the play that the glibly sacharine lies of conquest and cruelty turn to lies not professing but denying love, wounding hearer and speaker both. At Hovey, the sudden slip of Valmont from posturing to passion is obvious in Jason Beals' and Sara Jones' every word and breath and gesture, and the fear and contempt in Melissa Sine's Merteuil when she sees she has lost the game by winning it is equally apparent. On the bigger stage, such subtleties were nowhere in evidence.

But then, such reversals of type come in the second half of the play, and this evening whole rows of people paying 65 dollars apiece to see the show decamped, after discussing their discontents, in the act-break. Apparently some critic or other had given them permission to do so, so they left.

What drew them to the huntington in the first place, though? Could it be the presence in the cast of a graduate of t-v's "Dark Shadows" and "The Pretenders" and film-work playing opposite Pam Grier and Snoop Dogg? I'd like to say Michael T. Weiss brings from these worlds a depth and intelligence and understanding badly needed on todays stages, but I can't. Still, who knows? I didn't see him at the Huntington in "Burn This" --- and perhaps he is merely a victim of Daniel Goldstein's ham-handed blocking, over-obvious line-readings, and, in general, direction that displays a contempt for the intelligence of the Boston audience.

If you like good, ironic dialogue, lusty themes, and wicked asides, I'd advise you to call 1(781)893-9171 and beg the Hovey Players to extend the run of their production. Rather than losing audiences that have already paid, Hovey is even now fighting off bribes for standing-room in their two remaining week-ends of performance. Maybe, were you to offer them the fifty-bucks-per-seat more that the Huntington charges for the same play, they might manage to find one of their 52 seats empty on a night you're free.

It's worth a try, isn't it?

( a k a larry stark )

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses"
@ The Huntington Stage Company

directed by Daniel Goldstein

Scenic Design by James Noone
Lighting Design by Mark Stanley
Costume Design by Erin Chainani
Sound Design by Benjamin Emerson Original Music by Loren Toolajian
Casting Director Alaine Alldaffer
Production Stage Manager Stephen M. Kaus
Stage Manager Eileen Ryan Kelly

La Marquise de Merteuil.....Tasha Lawrence
Madame de Volanges..............Ann Talman
Cecile de Volanges...........Louisa Krause
Major Domo.....................James Bodge
Vicomte de Valmont........Michael T. Weiss
Azolan.........................Seth Fisher
Madame de Rosemonde............Alice Duffy
La Presidente de Tourval......Yvonne Woods
Emilie.......................Jennie Israel
Chevalier de Danceny............Jeff Barry
Footman........................Jacob Green
Maid.........................Juliet Totten

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (13 - 28 January)
The Abbott Memorial Theatre, 9 Spring Street, WALTHAM
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (6 January - 5 February)
264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON
Box Office: 1(617) 266-0800

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