Review: Naples Players go French, get sexy in 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'

Article Highlights

  • "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday - Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 17.
  • Tickets are $25; call 239-263-7990 or online at naplesplayers.org.
Pictured with Mark Vanagas, who plays Valmont, are Kathleen Gravatt (Mme. Merteuil), top, and Laura Needle (Tourvel).

Courtesy the Naples Players

Pictured with Mark Vanagas, who plays Valmont, are Kathleen Gravatt (Mme. Merteuil), top, and Laura Needle (Tourvel).

What: Original play that inspired "Dangerous Liaisons," about the amoral games among French nobility

Caution: Show contains four scenes of very brief nudity - less than 10 seconds total in a 2.5 hour play

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 24

Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples

Cost: $25; limited tickets available in Tobye Studio

Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.org

Something else: The downtown parking garage fills up quickly during season. Plan to arrive early or be prepared to hunt for on-the-street parking.

On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog

— Of nudity in the Naples Players production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" there is very little. Of treachery, sexuality and villainy there is a great deal. Of morals there are none. Of applause, there was much. Welcome to France. Have some Champagne. Take your clothes off. Stay a while.

The brief nudity advertised in the playbill amounts to a five-second flash of female breasts, a fleeting glimpse of male backside and two "blink and you miss it" peeks at the male anatomy in subdued lighting. Don't get excited, but prurient types should sit as close to the front on the side by the wall as for a few cheap thrills.

Frequent Naples Players director Paul Graffy helms the Christopher Hampton stage play from which "Dangerous Liaisons" was adapted with a singular vision in mind. His "Liaisons" means to showcase the cruelty of a bored, listless aristocracy that used sex for entertainment and sport. In his director's notes, he likens the act to modern cyber bullying.

Much of his vision shines through, but the show feels like it staggered into opening night barely ready and held together with tape, string and fervent prayers. Actors flubbed lines, spoke in whispers and often failed to give more than the barest flicker of emotion to their intensely charged dialogue.

Graffy also seems to want his actors to retain their normal speaking voices instead of attempting either accents or the affected tones of the period. On one hand, this forces attention onto the words and their meaning; this is likely Graffy's intent. On the other, without any style or impetus behind the delivery, the show tends to drone.

Too often, scenes that need a dash of spice - either an affected politeness, dramatic pauses or mere simpering - just fall short. Graffy obviously wants to detach the show from its 1780s heritage in order to drive home the point that these characters could exist today.

He wants audiences to focus on the terrible deeds and the lies - not the fact this was the French aristocracy. The experiment may well work as the actors get more comfortable with their roles over the next few weeks.

One place the "less is more" philosophy does work wonders comes in the staging, design and lighting

The intimate Tobye Studio denies Graffy the opportunity for lavish sets filled with Louis XVI furniture and lashings of lace, petticoats and bustles. Instead, he opts for an empty square. Matt Flynn (sets) produces a back wall filled with pairs of enormous backlit frosted glass doors framed with rich gold curtains and hangings to suggest opulence. Marble columns flecked with golden veins surround the stage. Jeff Weiss (sound/lighting) produces an array of soft hues that move scenes from lightest, pale spring to stormy winter just by changing the wash of light on the doors.

At the sides, a few simple items of plain white furniture - chaise, bed, tables, chairs - slide in and out to create various settings. Cream and golden accessories transform the space into library, sitting room, bedchamber or reception room. A trio of actors in minor parts resets the stage, often while scenes play out in front of them. The gambit proves both clever and visually interesting while leaving the audience with a sense of anticipation.

While the show lays bare the scheming, duplicitous nature of humanity - and how little the cruel games of men and women have changed over the centuries, "Liaisons" itself boils down to one scene. Carole Fenstermacher steals it and the show.

As a treacherous first half draws to a close, Madame Tourvel (Laura Needle) lies distraught on cushions. The devious Vicomte de Valmont (Mark Vanagas) has crashed through her defenses, yet broken off the chase at his moment of victory. Tourvel is shocked by his unexpected chivalry. She is devastated because she loves Valmont - and is married to another man. Madame Rosemonde (Carole Fenstermacher) attempts to comfort her.

In just two spare pages of dialogue, Fenstermacher lays bare the issues at the heart of "Liaisons," underneath the games. Men enjoy the happiness they feel, while women can only enjoy the happiness they give. In her arms, the aged aunt transforms into a dowager dragon and her voice into a low scythe that slices the pallid air with fresh, raw emotion.

She snatches the powerful scene, lifts it into a condemnation of love itself and the follies wrought from it. She allows the audience to see in Rosemonde's eyes the pain of the past, the wisdom gained from broken hearts and the experience of decades. At last, here, at this moment, you feel the hurt, the agony and the destruction caused by "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

Kathleen Gravatt makes an appealing, if slightly under-stated Marquise de Merteuil. Graffy (correctly) wants to steer the actress and her character away from the sheer monstrosity of Cruella de Vil territory, but pulls her back almost too far. I understand his desire to tamp down the piece's inherent soap opera-style dramatics, but what emerges comes out almost too flat. Still, the veteran actress proves more than able to deliver.

Gravatt, in one of Dot Auchmoody's crimson and gold creations with a plunging heart-shaped bustline and exaggerated hips, puts steel in her voice. Her Merteuil serves as the master manipulator, pulling the threads of a half-dozen plots and nearly as many suitors. You'll love the way she throws up a delicate hand to bar a presumptuous lover from leaning in for a kiss or eloquently manipulates conversation.

Graffy also uses the costume shop's skills to open the show with a major bang. Patrons enter to stare at opulent, colorful costumes hanging on mannequins. At the curtain, music plays and the cast enters in underwear and petticoats. Servants dress the nobility, then themselves. The delicate ballet reveals the details of construction that went into the period garments - from garments with corsets that women had to be tied into - to towering hairpieces that maids set gently atop heads.

Victoria Diebler provides amusement in two brief scenes as courtesan Emilie. I wish Graffy has lingered over a scene were Valmont writes a letter to another woman on Emilie's bare back; the scene, laced with innuendo, seems to offer much comic possibility, yet felt rushed Wednesday.

Mark Vanagas strides through the space looking resplendent in a green and gold tailored coat with a scarf tied around his neck, white linen pants and creamy ivory boots. He seduces, he strokes, he threatens and he purrs.

Graffy uses his Valmont like a weapon, but a blunted one. For all that Valmont should be a master at sensuality and physicality, the character feels almost neutered; Vanagas has decent chemistry with Gravatt's Merteuil, but none with his supposed great love, Needle's Tourvel or his underage conquest Cecile (Sarah Dickerson). While this may be another element of Graffy's icy outlook on the show, it again serves to weaken the piece.

You can make the case that the characters truly do not care about each other - they simply manipulate at random - and maim lives and break hearts at will. Yet, from the audience's perspective, the scenes start to take on a lifeless quality, as if the actors simply repeat the lines, move into positions and sleepwalk into the next blackout. The concept proves an interesting take on the show, though I suspect a happy medium may come when Graffy boosts his cast just enough so that they appear languid, not listless.

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" offers an interesting, visually stunning look at love, loss and the games people play. If the show doesn't always thrill, it does provide a clinic on skilled acting and how a director's vision can shape a piece. A witty script offers much innuendo-laced dialogue - and rich people behaving badly always proves entertaining.

Wigs, corsets and epees oh my! Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com. Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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