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Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Rich See

Liberté, égalité, fraternité...

 Christopher Henley as the Vicomte de Valmont and Peter 
Klaus as the Madame de Tourve
Christopher Henley as the Vicomte de Valmont and Peter Klaus as the Madame de Tourvel.
(Photo: Ray Gniewek)
Actor's Theatre of Washington (ATW) is mounting an intriguing all-male production of Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, that classic play about sexual seduction and revenge power struggles of the rich and famous in 1790 France. Adapted from the epistolary novel by Pierre Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos that was first published in 1782, ATW is attempting to show the universal themes of the play whether gay, straight, male, female, black, white, Latino, etc.

Originally intended to be performed at the new Busboys & Poets' stage, director Lee Mikeska Gardner has pulled together a terrific team to bring this adaptation to the now vacant former Source Theatre space. The company has been rehearsing at Source and the show will now be performed there throughout its run.

Using Greg Stevens' basic, yet very flexible, set and costume designs, Ms. Mikeska Gardner has attempted to move beyond the gender roles of the piece into the symbolic aspects. Thus the female roles are played by men, with perhaps a necklace or fan to represent the feminine character. The backdrop screens used are symbolic of the theme of the entire play -- Love (Venus) unlocking (key) the heart and offering life (arteries and veins becoming flowers). Jeffrey Johnson's sound design fits as various dark music filters in at key moments. Although long (almost three hours) the bare bones aspect and actors' abilities help you to see some underlying character traits that might be missed in a more traditionally gender cast show.

Artistic directors Jeffrey Johnson (ATW) and Christopher Henley (Washington Shakespeare Company) take the lead roles of La Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont (respectively). Mr Johnson is excellent as the truly viscous Marquise, a bored misanthrope who uses her leisure time to inflict pain upon the people around her. Mr. Henley is emotionally compelling in his role as the unfeeling seducer.

In the part of the religious Le Presidente de Tourval, Peter Klaus is touching as the naïve individual being abused simply because she is both beautiful and devout. One of the most interesting, yet little dwelled upon aspects of the play, is that Mme Tourval ultimately succeeds in unraveling both the marquise and vicomte through her piousness. Her honest nature raises the stakes in the game of emotional pain that the marquise and vicomte play to amuse themselves, which eventually destroys their relationship and their lives.

Brent Stansell shines as the gullible Cecile de Volanges, a young woman fresh from the convent who is a pawn as the marquise and vicomte exact revenge on former lovers. Daniel Eichner as the exceedingly simple Le Chevalier Danceny is quite funny in his exaggerated gestures of thanks and humility. Michael Way as the vicomte's unctuous servant Azolan, also brings some wonderful humor to the play. Filling out the cast are John C. Bailey, Joe Mancuso, Ray Hagen and Jay Hardee.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses showcases Mr. Hampton's wonderfully insightful and witty writing, which brings out each characters' inner flaws as a mirror for us to see our own. The short comings in the ATW production are few. The main one being that the relationship between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Henley seems more like one of conspiratorial old friends than former lovers who maintain a high level of sexual tension. Conversely, both actors highlight their characters' inner fears of personal growth and vulnerability in every word spoken.

The nudity -- uncharacteristically for me -- actually took away from the emotional impact of the piece. And the sexual moments (perhaps by directorial design?) seemed mechanical with the actors appearing to be happy when the scenes were over.

Additionally, the ending is not as pointed in its references to the fact that most of the characters will be having their heads chopped off once the French Revolution picks up steam. However, the constant onstage presence of the entire cast -- often responding as viewers to the action on stage -- shows the voyeuristic feeding frenzy that members of the French aristocracy engaged in with each other.

All in all, ATW's production is definitely worth a revisit to this classic play. It's a decadent little treat for cast and audience alike! Running Thursdays through Sundays until September 4th, call 1-800-494-8497 for tickets ($25-$30) or visit

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
with John C. Bailey, Daniel Eichner, Ray Hagen, Jay Hardee, Christopher Henley, Jeffrey Johnson, Peter Klaus, Joe Mancuso, Brent Stansell, Michael Way
Set Design: Greg Stevens
Sound Design: Jeffrey Johnson
Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows
Costume Design: Greg Stevens
Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes with one intermission
A production of Actor's Theatre of Washington (ATW),
at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, Washington, DC
Telephone: 1-800-494-TIXS
THU - SAT @ 8, SUN @ 7; $26.50-$31.50
Opening 08/05/05, closing 09/04/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 08/06/05 performance
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