Regional Reviews: San Francisco
New Version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses
American Conservatory Theatre opens its 37th season with the world premiere of a new version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. This production has been adapted and directed by Giles Havergal. I have always been fascinated by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' deliciously seductive 18th century novel of lustful conquests and sexual betrayals ever since I saw Alan Rickman play the Vicomte de Valmont in 1985 on the Ambassador Theatre stage in London. That sparking production also featured Juliet Stevenson as Madame de Tourvel, Fiona Shaw as Madame Volanges and Lindsay Duncan as La Marquise de Merteuil. Mr. Rickman played the role of the ruthless womanizer for 500 performances in London and New York.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses has appeared in many forms since that date. There have been numerous regional company productions and three films based on the Laclos story. The last film was an updated "teenaged" version called Cruel Intentions. The current ACT production is stylized from prior productions. It also has a few modern touches involving cell phones.
Dangereuses is about the complex moral uncertainty of seduction and revenge. The novel, written in 1782, is considered one the most scandalous and controversial works of fiction in European literature. It is the story of the Vicomte de Valmont (Marco Barricelli) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Lise Bruneau) as the prime movers on the drama. They are gifted, rich and bored, so they form an unholy alliance to turn seduction into a pleasurable game. They take perverse pleasure in plotting the moral and emotional downfall of unsuspecting innocents.
Merteuil wants Valmont to deflower Cecile (Elizabeth Raetz), a 15 year old beauty just out of the convent who really is infatuated with her young and handsome musical teacher Danceny (Neil Hopkins). Meanwhile, Valmont has a greater challenge in seducing a very piously virtuous young wife, Madame de Tourvel (Libby West).
Valmont plays the game with such wit and style that you have to admire him as he goes about seducing both of the innocent women. However, Merteuil and Valmont discover that the game has mysterious rules that they cannot understand. As a result, they and the innocents will all lose in the end. There are no victors in this game. Even with the setting in the 18th century France, we can see modern parallels in the world we live in.
Director Giles Havergal has assembled a superb cast to play this enchantingly shameful drama of morals. Once again, Marco Barricelli displays his talents as being one of the best theatrical actors in the Bay Area. His voice is music, and he is amusingly wicked and vane as Valmont. He postures himself between a young rake and a snake moving against a prey in true hypnotic fashion. His performance is mesmerizing.
Lise Bruneau plays the Marquise as a very cold, calculating person who has the hide of a rhino. She is the kind of aristocrat who probably would have gone to the guillotine during the revolution. Elizabeth Raetz as Cecile is enthusiastic in her development of sex and even happier that she has such a good looking young wooer, Danceny. Neil Hopkins makes a good, naïve virginal Chevalier. Libby West as Madame de Tourvel communicates horribly the agony of one whose emotions have been set ablaze only to find out her lover is a sham hypocrite. Joan MacIntosh as the narrator and stand-in for various older women is very interesting as she relates to the audience the nuances of drama.
Giles Havergal's adaptation has the characters reading letters whereas Christopher Hampton's play was mostly dialogue. The cell phones used in several scenes show that things are not that much different in today's world.
Kate Edmund's set is striking, with high varnished walls and painted gold sconces. The set is filled with Louis XVI gilt furniture but she adds a modern touch by placing several plexiglas chairs among the antique pieces. There are also trellises with dead vines on the left side of the stage. Lighting by Ri Rita's is spectacular and fits the mood of each scenes. Deborah Dyden's copious French gowns are scrupulous. Even the contemporary suit worn by the narrator is beautifully made. Peter Maleitzke's between scenes score is a combination of New Age, rock and baroque music.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses runs thru October 12 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, Ca. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.
ACT's next production will be Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. It opens on October 17th.