Love Hurts

   There’s nothing more dangerous than love. Or, to be more precise, there’s nothing more dangerous than two sex-crazed adversaries determined to best one another in a game of lust—regardless of whom they hurt along the way.

Jim Ballard and Katie Fabel in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   So goes the story of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, currently on stage at Palm Beach Dramaworks through March 1. Playwright Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel premiered on Broadway in 1987 and subsequently made it onto the big screen in a 1988 film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich (and later reimagined for Generation X in the form of Cruel Intentions).

   Set in and around Paris in the 1780s, Les Liaisons revolves around aristocratic ex-lovers, La Marquise de Merteuil (played by Kate Hampton) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Jim Ballard), who seduce and embarrass others for sport. For this particular romp—the romp to end all romps—the Vicomte is determined to win the affection of the married La Présidente de Tourvel (Katie Fabel) while also seducing the young Cécile Volanges (Kelly Gibson) as part of a revenge scheme designed by the Marquise. The Vicomte’s reward for bedding both beauties? A night with the Marquise, mais bien sûr!

   Palm Beach Dramaworks’ rendition of this classic, directed by Lynnette Barkley, excels in bringing a modern touch to the antiquated prose in the form of tech design and spirited character interpretations. At nearly three hours long, the play’s exposition-heavy dialogue does drag; there are many instances when the characters rehash what literally just happened or spend multiple minutes outlining action that would be better suited as actual action. However, a handful of outstanding performances, as well as the innovative set, period-accurate costumes and cheeky sound and light design more than makeup for the script’s shortcomings.

   Both Ballard and Hampton give solid performances as the main devilish duo. The Marquise describes the Vicomte as a man who “never opens his mouth without first calculating how much damage he can do,” and Ballard successfully portrays this self-assured and conniving playboy, buttressed by fine flirting skills and a knack for deception. He falters when it comes to the emotional earnestness asked of his character in the second half, but his shifts do come across as genuine. Hampton embodies Ballard’s always disingenuous counterpart with scheming accuracy. While the Vicomte’s motivations are consistently clear to the audience, the Marquise plays her deck close to her chest—a theme made evident by her continuous card playing and by a stringed rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” played before and after the production.

Kate Hampton and Brian William Sheppard (Le Chevalier Dancency) in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Photo by Alicia Donelan

   Though the leads are strong, they are upstaged by certain members of their supporting cast. As Cécile Volanges, Kelly Gibson delivers a comically innocent woman, whose blonde locks and doe eyes hint at the vixen just waiting to be unleashed. Her beats offer the most comic relief in the play and enliven the plot with a youthful tempo. As the Vicomte’s other lover, Katie Fabel portrays the exact opposite of Gibson—a woman steadfast in her convictions and reluctant to falter from her marriage. This disposition, of course, proves to be irresistible to the Vicomte, and Fabel conveys a sincere emotional tug-of-war, one that leaves the audience feeling for her character above all others.

   Before the curtain on opening night, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director William Hayes acknowledged the amazing feats achieved by the technical crew. And, all in all, this production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is most notable for its costume and scenic design. The costumes by Brian O’Keefe are so intricate and accomplished that they had to have their own sponsor. O’Keefe’s work stays true to pre-revolution Parisian fashion of the 1780s, complete with stockings, leggings, large skirts and elaborate stitching and complemented by wigs designed by Omayra Diaz Rodriguez. On the other hand, the set by Victor Becker is a modern interpretation of classical French architecture, composed of a skeletal staircase that revolves to transition from one household to the next.

   Considering all of these elements, and with the addition of clever lighting and sound design by Jerold R. Forsyth and Steve Shapiro respectively, the merits of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Les Liaisons Dangerueses outweigh the play’s inherent problems. Francophiles and lovers of love alike should flock to this show before the month of love—and the production—comes to a close.

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