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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Sparks fly in 18th-century France in American Players Theatre's Les Liaisons Dangereuses
This is hot stuff, especially for APT.
Credit:Carissa Dixon

Beneath chandeliers draped in jewels, in the intimate Touchstone Theatre, plays out what is likely the steamiest production American Players Theatre has ever done: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (through Nov. 24).

When Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses was first published, it shocked readers with its graphic content. More than 200 years later, in this stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton, it hasn’t lost its edge. Liaisons takes us inside the lives of some of France's filthy rich who, amid their boring lives of luxury, have abundant time to play games of sex, power and revenge.

Former lovers Marquise de Merteuil (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and Vicomte de Valmont (Jim DeVita) plan acts of revenge on lovers who spurned them, concocting an elaborate plot that will punish both the guilty and the innocent. They seem like brother and sister at times, until the occasional salacious touch reminds us that their relationship isn't completely platonic.

As Merteuil and Valmont, Arnold and DeVita make a perfect pair. They have tremendous chemistry onstage, so their longtime, complex relationship is believable. Arnold is deliciously sociopathic as Merteuil. Her performance on opening night was stunning; I couldn't keep my eyes off of her. Her character is predictably evil, but manages to be unpredictable at the same time. DeVita seems at home in the role of Valmont, comfortable in his swagger and in the attention of his lovestruck victims.

Perhaps Valmont's most innocent exploit is the modest Madame de Tourvel, played by Laura Rook. Tourvel is the only character with a completely working conscience. Unfortunately, that also makes her the most boring. When Valmont begins seducing her, her protestations feel whiny and her fits of hyperventilation dull.

Fortunately, the other characters have weaker moral compasses. Cécile Volanges (Melisa Pereyra), begins the play as a fresh-out-of-school ingénue. Pereyra looked so young on stage, I actually had to read her bio mid-performance, just to be sure she was legal. In one of the most tantalizing scenes, Valmont enters the bedroom of sleeping Cécile. She wakes a bit scared, but somewhat fascinated. Heavy petting ensues -- and I mean heavy petting.

While there's no nudity in this show, this is hot stuff, especially for APT. In another spicy scene, we see Valmont's encounter with perky courtesan Emilie (Kelsey Brennan). On one level, Liaisons is a sex-filled soap opera, but it's also an exploration of the darker desires of humanity.

The onstage antics are framed by Nathan Stuber's simple and elegant set, done in a palette of silver, gold and black, with plenty of shiny jacquard. The stage floor is painted to look like marble. Designed by Rachel Anne Healy, the costumes follow the lines of the period while reflecting the personalities of the characters.

Directed by Brenda DeVita, Liaisons is an excellent choice for APT's indoor season; it capitalizes on the popularity of period pieces like Downton Abbey and on audiences who have been tantalized by books like Fifty Shades of Grey. Viewers are sure to love the posh costumes, the novelty of visiting another time and place, and the wicked characters playing cruel games. The liaisons in this play are indeed dangerous -- dangerously entertaining.

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