There is a Disney ad running on television now for the latest version of the cartoon “Cinderella.” In it, we are shown the now-familiar face of the sneering evil stepmother. I thought of that image several times, watching Janis Stevens’ portrayal of La Marquise de Merteuil in Capital Stage’s lusty production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, directed by Michael Stevenson.
Stevens’ Merteuil may be the most malevolent female character you see on stage this year. With her head tilted back, her eyes mere slits, and her mouth forming an icy smile, Stevens is the perfect bad girl.
The setting is pre-Revolution Paris. Merteuil enlists her former lover, Le Vicomte de Valmont (Jason Kuykendall), to avenge a wrong done to the both of them by the unseen Gercourt, who has seduced a lover of Valmont while in the midst of a liaison with Merteuil. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce Gercourt’s young bride to be, the 15-year-old virginal Cecile Volanges (Michelle Murphy). However, Valmont, feeling Cecile too unchallenging and uninteresting a victim (“humiliating, if you fail; commonplace, if you succeed”), is more intrigued by the virtuous, married La Presidente de Tourvel (Stephanie Gularte).
Let the games begin!
Kuykendall is a perfect co-conspirator for Stevens’ Merteuil. Tall, handsome, charming, and totally smarmy. Kuykendall has it all. He appears believable in his interactions with the young Cecile and the virtuous Tourvel, yet his personality can change in an instant when he flops down on the chaise lounge to report progress on his path of seduction. Valmont doesn’t plan on one thing: he actually falls in love with Tourvel and he’s not quite sure how to handle those feelings, which are his ultimate undoing.
Gularte is positively luminous, struggling with her response to Valmont’s advances, juggling the conflict between her duty to her husband, whom she does not love (“I am so lonely!”) and her desire for Valmont.
Michelle Murphy is so innocent, so young, that her rape by Valmont is so disturbing, we almost hope someone from “To Catch a Predator” will pop out from behind the secret panel and prevent the attack. Her later delight in the pleasures of the bedroom are likewise disturbing, given the age discrepancy between the two partners.
Paul Alary is Le Chevalier Danceny, a young man hopelessly in love with Cecile who innocently allows Valmont to control both his life and his pursuit of the object of his desire. Alary plays this young man as a bumbling adolescent whose transformation later in the piece is striking.
David Campbell makes much of the small role of Azolan, Valmont’s valet.
The supporting casts is equally strong – Gail Dartez as Cecile’s mother, Mme de Volanges; Vada Russell and Mme de Rosemonde; Megan Smith as the courtesan Emilie; and Michael Pollock as the Major-domo.
This production is so good that one would wish for a larger venue to greater present the opulence of the period, but Capitol Stage does what it can with the space it has to work in. Jonathan Williams has designed a generic drawing room which can be transformed into various boudoirs or drawing rooms by the movement of the ubiquitous chaise lounge, the changing of a vase of flowers, or the addition of a card table.
Gail Russell’s costumes are luxurious, and well suited to the character in question, whether the deep scarlet of Merteuil or the more virginal beige for Tourvel.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a sexy tale of love, lust and lies, beautifully served up by Capital Stage. The production contains brief nudity and is not recommended for the under-18 crowd.