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Louche Laughs

by James Yeara on February 11, 2010

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Shakespeare & Company, Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, Mass., through March 21

Masters of cruelty and sex: (l-r) McCabe and Aspenleider in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

There’s plenty of enjoyment in this Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Shakespeare & Company’s winter production of the 1987 Tony Award-nominated play (later made into the Oscar-winning 1988 film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich). The play is full of intended laughs at the mannered hypocrisy of France’s ruling class in the years immediately preceding the Reign of Terror. Not since the last Republican National Convention has so much moral hypocrisy been displayed to such hilarious comic effect. With lush costumes in hues of champagne, burgundy, and purple, costume designer Govane Lohbauer gives master director Tina Packer a rich stage full of bustled gowns, swirling frock coats, and heaving beauty marks, with some delightful feathered hats that the cast use to good effect.

Elizabeth Aspenleider, as Madame le Marquise de Merteuil, and Josh Aaron McCabe, as the Vicomte de Valmont, tossed off their bon mots about love, life, and society’s hypocrisies with aplomb: “Her husband’s fingers aren’t as green as they once were,” Valmont says of a potential conquest, to which Merteuil coolly observes, “Thankfully all her husband’s friends are gardeners.”

Physically, McCabe made good comic use of a leather riding crop and a smaller leather lash, both with Alexandra Lincoln’s Emile, a pliable courtesan the rich use for cardio, and Kelly Galvin’s Madame de Tourvel, a pious nobleman’s wife whom Valmont uses for exercise of his competitive spirit. Similarly, Aspenleider and Jennie Burkhard Jadow, as Madame de Volanges, engaged in spirited greetings involving air busses, dips, and trilling diphthongs. Jadow is a comic delight, the matching beauty marks on her right cheek and left bosom seemingly winking and disapproving simultaneously at the shenanigans of Merteuil, Valmont, and her own daughter, Cecile (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan). It’s another winning supporting role in Jadow’s resume.

As with Capital Repertory Theatre’s recent Betrayal, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has at its heart betrayal, deception and hypocrisy. Indeed, Valmont observes that “betrayal” is Merteuil’s favorite word, but she states emphatically it’s “cruelty,” elongating the word to its fullest number of beats. As played in both productions, the rich are too bored and affected to generate much heat. Maybe both productions make adultery among the entitled class so pointless and commonplace that an ironic moral lesson is imparted. But save for a singular moment, both productions skim the surface for the facile rather than penetrate the depths of their respective plays:

In the midst of this rumpus between the sexes, Aspenleider stands center stage in the big box Bernstein Theatre. Briefly, the studied poses, deft dances, and choreographed dalliances stop. She declares to McCabe’s archly affected Valmont, detailing the stakes of their battle of sexual conquests, “Win, or die.” Aspenleider lets Merteuil’s mask slip and reveals the terror a fading beauty feels when faced with a brush full of gray hairs and a mirror reflecting not just etched wrinkles but jowls. She stares wide-eyed at the audience. It’s the only naked, dangerous, touching moment in this two-and- quarter-hour hustling production, and it’s easily the bravest seen on local stages this year.