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St. Louis by Richard Green

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

On stage this week at the Grandel Theatre, Lavonne Byers floats about in swirling satin skirts, making evil and corruption seem almost as delightful as babies and bunny rabbits. There is also a fearsome crocodile buried deep down inside her La Marquise de Merteuil, emerging from the depths every now and then to consume the unwise. It's quite beautiful, and horrible, to behold. And, though I delight in her glittering performance, the cruel decadence of the tale left me feeling as though we all needed a good power-wash afterward.

Ms. Byers is one of those exceptional actresses who reportedly plans out every millimeter of a performance. As such, one could hardly ask for a better leading lady to play the scheming, elegant spider-woman of the piece. Not that the actress is any worse than the rest of us, nor that her performance lacks spontaneity. A check of her recent roles is certainly a testament to her versatility: she was so loving and warm in Fuddy Meers a few years back, and wacky and romantic in Red Herring more recently. She is, in fact, the woman most frequently singled out as "the best actress in St. Louis." And regarding her taut, controlled performance here, there are also any number of thrilling moments where events seem to kick her right in the solar plexus as her best laid plans burst into flames before her eyes. That she indeed possesses a commanding presence, a noble profile and a deep, Stradivarius call are probably things you are have imagined for her already.

Her greatest moment: As her partner in seductions and betrayals describes his latest conquest (which she inspired), Ms. Byers' eyes narrow slightly, proudly looking off over our heads at some great invisible turbines of her own industry of sex and lies. So much artistry lies quietly between her lines.

Matt Kahler, his hair bushed-up in the fashion of the young Mozart, has fully graduated to leading man status as La Vicomte de Valmont. Seeing him in the role is a bold rebuke to John Malkovich, who played the part in the 1988 Hollywood movie, Dangerous Liaisons, with Glenn Close. Mr. Kahler is far more charming and whimsically insidious. This production, overall, is far more humorous (despite the politics of personal destruction) than the Stephen Frears-directed film.

Credit for both the humor and the horror inevitably goes to playwright Christopher Hampton (who adapted from de Laclos) and director Milt Zoth, once again in excellent form, managing this meticulously grand mousetrap. The script is very elegant, despite all the plotting that occupies Ms. Byers and Mr. Kahler. Director Zoth carries us right along, orchestrating the very chilly depravity of France in the Restoration. As Baudelaire said of the original novel, "if it burns, it burns with the manner of ice." This visit to pre-Revolutionary France certainly has plenty of fire, and plenty of ice.

Julie Layton is very fine as Mr. Kahler's intended victim, and Carrie Walther does well as the 15-year-old who happens to get caught in the way. Karen Klaus and Donna Weinsting are excellent support, along with Jill Ritter in a remarkably fresh portrayal. Byron Hotson is awkwardly funny and dramatically fine as the young man led astray. It will sound gratuitous to New Yorkers, but the many scene changes here are performed with clockwork precision, even as we see good strong characterizations by the various servants in the cast.

Beautiful costumes are supplied by Jennifer "JC" Carter, with a pleasant, adaptable set by Patrick Huber. A good, dramatic sword fight is choreographed by Bob McPherson. Act one runs about an hour and a half, and act two, about an hour. But the hypnotic Ms. Byers, and the delicious morality lesson at hand, make it seem much shorter.

Through September 11, 2005. Produced by St. Louis Shakespeare, at the Grandel Theatre. For information, call (314) 534-1111.


-- Richard T. Green

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