Dangerous Liaisons @ Paper Wing Theatre
I have a couple of spoiler warnings to declare before I get into my thoughts on this show. The thing is, the story is very well known. If you haven’t seen the vast number of adaptations or read the source material, then I apologize in advance. But the truth of the matter is that there are some stories that simply couldn’t really be spoiled. Hamlet is trying to avenge his father and dies, Romeo and Juliet die, Benedick and Beatrice fall in love, and Rudolph saves Christmas. This play is based on a classic novel that is well over 200 years old and I’m not going to apologize for letting the cat out of the bag. Consider yourself warned, oh dear Faceless Reader.
I’m a prude.
Let’s get that out of the way from the get-go and move on from there since I’m already late in seeing the show, already late to the controversy that is the show, and already late in addressing all the pachyderms occupying said domicile. My beliefs are somewhat puritanical and that’s really all there is to it. I’m not ashamed of it and I certainly don’t need to hide behind excuses like some writers in the area. So the question has been asked about whether Paper Wing Theatre goes beyond the realm of good taste and offends sensibilities. To that, the answer is simple- If you’re the sort to be offended or uncomfortable with any degree of stage nudity then you may consider their advertising a “buyer beware” approach to the show. But it’s not gratuitous- it’s not nudity for the sake of nudity and it’s not even nudity for the sake of titillation. Actually, the nudity is often so matter of fact and brief that it seems very much like a costuming choice for the sake of the time period more than anything. Save for one scene, the nudity is never really thrown at the audience- and that one scene is something I need to talk about in some degree of detail.
Amanda Platsis bares all for her performance in this scene- a deliberate exposure for the character who is freely in love and unburdened in a moment of absolute vulnerability. She is glowing on the stage and it is in that moment that she is torn apart and her stunned almost desperate scramble to pull the rags of her clothing back together is heart wrenching. There’s nothing gratuitous in the scene- there’s nothing titillating and especially nothing sensitive to the moment, it is raw and honest and deserves my attention and my admiration. It’s a scene that haunted me on the ride back home, it haunted me when I woke this morning, and it especially haunted me when I struggled to first start writing my thoughts. It was too big to hold back on and so it’s the first thing I’m writing about in earnest- the earlier paragraphs were just fluff to get me started and it’s not at all the end of my thoughts. Platsis built up to this moment throughout the play, building a character arc that made her character believable and sympathetic… something that other adaptations have often failed to achieve for my personal tastes.
What else leads up to this scene? The machinations of the Marquis de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two members of the French aristocracy playing their scandalous games of intrigue and seduction with a definite air of pompous cruelty. And, unlike other productions, this script fully explores the willing participation of others in this Game. The Fashion is spot on (Costumes by : Katherine Johnson), the language of a lady’s fan is explored, the make-up, the struggle to maintain face in the midst of scorn and humiliation, to use the tongue as a barb with verbal feints and jabs, and the occasional bribe all play a part in the story as more than just dressing. No one plays the game better than the Marquis (Koly McBride), a Lady who has played the game for a long time and who is simply unable to even tolerate a missed opportunity to gain advantage over any and every one. She’s not able to stop herself from drinking her fill of it. She’s not some bored woman of means, she’s actively cruel and merciless in her pursuit of the Game.
Her willing co-conspirator is the Vicomte de Valmont (Lj Brewer), a man whose scandals are worn across his sleeve like a badge of pride. He loves them and he leaves them and he never bats an eye in the process. He’s a rake, through and through. And Brewer presents something noble in all of this- because he never truly claims to be anything other than what he is. He never proclaims himself a good man- and if one is able to read between the lines, he almost seems an honest man in all of these games. And, in the end, he becomes a man who is trapped by the Game itself when it turns on him and sets his path on a seduction of Madame de Tourvel (Platsis). She’s a woman of devout faith, married to a prominent judge, and a great prize to be had by Valmont. But Valmont is wholly unprepared for the man he becomes in the process.
And what about those other participants in the Game? Cecile de Volanges is a naïve young woman fresh out of the convent and ripe for the plucking fingers of her cousin, the Marquis and the rakish Valmont. Her doe-eyed love and affection for her music instructor, Chevalier Danceny (well-played by Taylor Landess), paves the way for willing participation in the scandals that ultimately threaten her family and pending marriage. Britney Stane tells her story with all the innocence the role requires and brings something very interesting to her performance. It’s hard to put into words- there is a point in the story where her character is learning the social graces of what it means to be a Lady and she flips her fan. Her performance relies strongly on the practiced ease of the other actresses and one wouldn’t notice if one weren’t paying close attention- I’m just the sort of person who does pay attention. She flips her fan while her eyes seek approval from the others- she walks with an eye for how everyone else is perceiving her walk, a certain worry behind every step that could falter at just about any moment. And Stane does falter on occasion- purposeful to the performance, sold by the others sharing the stage with her, and it’s very well choreographed.
And that leads me to the other noblewomen, all of whom are played to near perfection. Madame de Rosemond (Andrea MacDonald) Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Volanges (Katherine Johnson) as the disapproving mother, and Emily (Kate Faber) a scandalous courtesan. Each woman has a role to play in the affairs of the story and each woman brings something different to the proceeding. Each brings a certain degree of humor when it’s needed, they support the action on the stage with a practiced glance, stare, sigh, or false acceptance of one another.
And what’s a story about Aristocratic excess without the biting satire and humor? This play is rich with laughter, from double entendre’s and sarcasm of the court to the vulgar sexuality and eavesdropping antics of the too-curious servants all too willing to sell out their employers for a few silver. William Colligan is brilliantly hilarious as Valmont’s servant Azolan, a low brow foil in the Shakespearean tradition of Dogberry. He carries on his own illicit affairs and often provides some “bro” moments with Valmont regarding his employers actions. I was also caught up by the sneaky-ninja eavesdropping and whispered secrets of the Marquis’ lady-in-waiting (Cheryl Karoly).
This is the go-home paragraph, the moment where I wrap it up all nice and pretty with a shout out to the director and the crew and all of that stuff- but let’s be honest here, when I look back at the performances and you may note how much I wrote about the other people on stage actually selling each performance with looks, glances, and gestures then you would understand how that speaks to the director for leading her cast in what is ultimately one of the most challenging ensemble performances I’ve ever seen. Certain moments of silence can speak a thousand words, certain mannerisms can only come across with the practiced eye of a director helping their cast to realize the full potential of their performance. Jourdain Barton’s eye is one I’ve long admired and one I continue to admire with this show.
4.5 out of 5.