Keep your bonbons. Your roses. Your teddy bears. I wanted something steamy for Valentine’s Day this year and when I learned that Red One was producing Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, my mouth started to water. A risk-taking theatre company and a script full of verbal choreography and carnal content. What could possibly go wrong?
As with any tryst, there were bound to be little bumps in the road. What was advertised as a “LIVE original score” started as some MIDI and a squawky upright bass, but settled into what could almost pass for a one-person sound design – some clever moments, but possessing a general tendency to take away more than it contributed.
Then, there was the matter of chemistry. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always imagined the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont as “two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little […] bottle”, to borrow a phrase from Noel Coward. Their cavalier and debauched conduct is what should set all the play’s other dominos falling. Perhaps Claire Burns and Daniel Briere, who played those two iconic characters, respectively, aren’t each other’s type and they hadn’t the stuff to conjure any kind of animal magnetism other than that of freeze-dried sea monkeys. All that followed suffered as a result.
Briere’s Vicomte, written as spurred on by significant desire for the Marquise, set about seducing (let’s call a rape a rape) the virginal Cecile Volanges (convincingly portrayed by Caroline Toal) and the chaste Madame de Tourvel (very impressively and movingly acted by Karen Knox). Instead of being unbridled and entitled in his first conquest, he trotted out a passionless parade of pathos (he’s not that into you either, it would seem, Cecile). And his dissembling wickedness in slowly and methodically tearing down a virtuous woman had the unfortunate habit of ringing quite true, instead of convincing an audience that he was a poncy wolf in a sheep’s paisley shirt. Interestingly, he was crying wolf and conveniently telegraphing the character’s later realization of real feelings for his mark.
Meanwhile, the allegedly devious Marquise went through her own manipulative motions with the decadence of a plain rice cake. The length of the slit in her skirt was inversely proportional to the libido she radiated. Amusingly, even the Chevalier Danceny (enthusiastically performed by Edward Charette) was more concerned with tucking his shirt in than wiping his face after having it buried between her legs. Points for posturing all around. And a penalty for being of a puritanical persuasion.
When all was said and done, there was apathy for a pair of devils who went through the motions of being bad without any tenacious wickedness. Of the survivors, only Kat Letwin’s Emilie was still smiling. But one always knew she was going to land on her feet.
No one got a happy ending, least of all the audience.