‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ Brings Decadent Scandal to the Antaeus Theatre Company Stage

It seems like every new headline these days offers a new revelation about the decadent habits of the upper class. Just in time for this age of scandal “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” (Dangerous Liasons) hits the stage at the Antaeus Theatre Company in Los Angeles. Running from Oct. 19 through Dec. 10, this new production of a classic tale of libertine intrigue and seduction vibrates with a dark heart and wicked knowledge of human nature. Set in pre-revolutionary France, the beauty of its source novel and subsequent film and theater adaptations is that its characters could live anywhere in any era.

The production stars Elyse Mirto as La Marquise de Merteuil and Scott Ferrara as Le Vicomte de Valmont. The two French aristocrats are former lovers and cynical manipulators of those they consider below them. For them sex is a mere game of cat and mouse. The two scheme to corrupt two innocent flowers of respectable French society, the very married La Presidente De Tourvel (Lindsay LaVanchy) and the virginal Cécile de Volanges (Elizabeth Rian). The innocent Cecile has fallen for her music tutor, the dashing Chevalier Danceny (Paul Culos). La Marquise de Merteuil makes a bet with Valmont: If he can indeed seduce the inaccessible Tourvel she will in turn spend the night with him. Her real desire is for Valmont to also corrupt Cecile as they both pretend to help the young girl match up with Danceny, this in the hope of later using them all as puppets in a cruel game of social manipulation.

There is something irresistible about intelligent decadent faire. This production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is gothic, intense and full of sexual tensions, and yet it isn’t kinky for the sake of mere entertainment. This isn’t an 18th century “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Like “The Satyricon” by Petronius, the sex and intrigue are used to frame the very nature and structure of a specific social class. Since its publication in 1782 Durand Neveu’s novel has stood as an example of the cold manners of the French upper class, in the years before the French Revolution dragged them to the judgement of the guillotine. Indeed, Mirto and Ferrara play the roles with the glee of the darkly spoiled. They move on stage with the almost animalistic serenity of predators who know they mustn’t answer to anything other than their impulses and desires. Mirto in particular has a powerful aura, she exudes that personality that has seen it all. Ferrara is suave and yet focused, like a man who sees his promiscuity as an art form finessed over years.

The approach of director Robin Larsen is fresh and engaging. Larsen gives the story a contemporary energy. It is a period tale but with a lighting design by Leigh Allen that’s edgy in its use of shadows, and costume design by Jocelyn Hublau Parker which feels of the past but with styles familiar in the present (Ferrara’s jacket could be sported by any bachelor prowling L.A. on a Saturday night). There is a kind of Victorian look to the design with a gothic spirit. Larsen has also made sure that never do the actors feel as if they are performing a dry text two centuries old. They bring a vigor and dark power to their performances that makes the story come alive. LaVanchy brings maturity and grace to her role, and is the perfect quarry for Valmont. Elizabeth Rian is full of angelic youth, yet as the story progresses and her sexuality begins to flower through the story’s twists and turns she becomes less innocent. Rian expertly performs the shifts in character flawlessly. We sense the sexual tension between these characters through glances, elegant yet devious body movements and penetrating stares. This is a story where the plot is based on manipulating others and where a conquest in bed is akin to a corporation succeeding in a hostile takeover.

Great literature and drama survive because of universal themes. “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” works as devilish sensual drama but as a work of anthropology. We are guided through the specific habits of some sectors of the ruling classes, where nothing is denied and leisure can be turned into human bloodsport. The attitudes we witness onstage become eerily familiar, because we realize we’ve been reading about them for weeks now. 1782 France could easily be 2017 Hollywood, or Washington, D.C.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses” opens at the Antaeus Theatre Company Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center Oct. 16 and will run through Dec. 10.