Opening Nights

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Theatre 4; ends Sat., July 10

It is not desire but desperation—silent, viciously devious desperation—that drives the plot of Liaisons, the 18th-century French masterpiece of aristocratic intrigue and predatory licentiousness penned by Choderlos de Laclos. At the time of the novel's writing, de Laclos, a middle-aged career soldier, was serving out a pointlessly dull assignment on an island in the Bay of Biscay, and he infects his characters with a dose of boredom so poisonous that their very physicality becomes a symptom of disease. The story itself is unremarkable, a tragedy wrapped in the guise of romantic satire. What makes playwright Christopher Hampton's adaptation such a powerhouse is the dark energy that flows between the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, the two aging libertines who wreak havoc in their dance of seduction.

If Valmont is the secretly beating heart of this play, Merteuil is the puppetmaster, a woman whose cold calculations belie a courtesan's romantic wisdom. Her manipulation of Valmont's affection reveals the paradox that lies at the core of their relationship: The pride that draws them together is the very thing that destroys them. The inability of either character to break the cycle of empty conquest is the real tragedy—sex without love is death.

It is in these principal performances that Exchange Theatre's production is such a big success. As Valmont, Roy Stanton embodies a perfect blend of smarmy confidence and besieged pride. His Valmont's sexual strut is becoming a limp, as he feels his youth slipping away, his powers of charm on the wane. Stanton's performance, all wolfish leers and furious scowls, elicits both empathy and terror, and for all his unctuous behavior, his inexorable demise is more sad than pathetic. As Valmont's romantic foil Merteuil, Peggy Gannon is equally stunning—wry, wise, contemptuously sexy, and madly narcissistic, a courtesan shoring up every last vestige of her once-formidable allure against impending old age.

The leads receive more than adequate help from the rest of the cast, especially Jennifer Perreault as the naive but ravenous Cecile. And director Vincent Brady does an excellent job with the staging; the set is sparse to the point of austerity, bringing our full attention to the performances that make this overly familiar play new and exciting. RICHARD MORIN

The Play's the Thing

Intiman Theatre; ends Sun., July 11

The curtain rises on an elegant suite in a castle on the Italian Riviera, where dramatist Sandor Turai (David Cromwell) and his partner Mansky (Laurence Ballard) are contemplating how damned difficult it is to begin a play. They very quickly have more pressing concerns: Because they arrived early with young composer Albert Adam (Quinlan Corbett) in tow, Adam overheard the passionate foreplay going on in the next room between his beloved diva, Ilona Szabo (Heather Guiles), and her leading man, the married Almady (Mark Capri). In a frantic attempt to keep the peace, Turai takes it upon himself to convince the devastated Adam that what he heard was only a rehearsal for a play—no matter that it means writing a script making non­sexual sense of Almady's rather florid protestations of love. Now if only all this were funny. . . . 

I suppose before I launch into what doesn't work about director John Michael Higgins' staging of P.G. Wodehouse's 1926 Ferenc Molnar adaptation, I should confess I'm much more a fan of playwright Tom Stoppard's take on the same material. His 1984 Rough Crossing traps all the action on an ocean liner, throws in a few period ditties by André Previn, gives Adam a nervous speech impediment, and just generally has a raucous time with what was, after all, only meant to be a clever lark. Wodehouse's version is veddy Wodehouse, which is to say it has tongue in cheek but a flower on its lapel. Stoppard, on the other hand, is less Wilde and more wild, as though the Marx Brothers were having their way in Earnest.

Higgins works too hard at keeping Wodehouse's upper lip stiff. He's distracted by the champagne and poses and never gets the action whipped up into anything resembling comedic uproar. It's a fleet show that nevertheless feels paced without purpose, missing whole volleys of punch lines and reined in just when it should be running crazy. Even when Cromwell finally gets going into something resembling a madcap machination, he isn't in sync with anybody else— certainly not Ballard, with whom he never quite clicks.

Honestly, nobody seems in sync with anybody else: Capri's blowhard Almady is wonderfully overripe—his humiliation at the hands of Turai's makeshift new script is a howl—but he's so singular in his embrace of what should be going on that he almost looks out of place. Corbett is ineffectual, and watching Guiles' rather wan interpretation of a prima donna, I kept thinking how much I'd like to pluck the scrumptious Heather Hughes from her misery over in Consolidated Works' leaden Antony and Cleopatra and set her loose here; her comic largesse would have given the climactic play-within-a-play the goose it needs. Only Larry Paulsen, playing a nebbishy secretary, comes anywhere near Capri's oomph; Clayton Corzatte's turn as a dry-witted man­servant is apt but unexciting.

The production is pleasant enough, I suppose, and looks great—scenic designer John Arnone has created a luxurious suite. Yet I can't help thinking that hardly anyone's making the absurdly grand gestures the room should just barely contain. The theater people I know always treat a room as their stage. The characters here, sigh, are treating the stage as their room. STEVE WIECKING

Cavalia: A Magical Encounter Between Horse and Man

Boeing Renton Plant; ends Mon., July 5

If you're completely, positively indifferent to horses and horsemanship, you can probably take or leave Cavalia. Though there are non-horse-centric things to enjoy—some good "nouvelle circus" stuff involving acrobats and aerialists, set off by New Agey music and colorful projected images—they only constitute about 20 percent or 30 percent of the show.

But if you harbor the least trace of horse passion, or even if you're just an animal lover, do not miss this. You'll enjoy almost all of it, and there are several segments that you'll remember for years to come—they're that special and that good.

Housed under the white big top in the parking lot of Boeing's Renton plant, where Cirque du Soleil played during two recent summers, Cavalia is an ambitious spectacle: 21 humans (plus a live band) and 30 horses performing on a 150-foot-wide stage backed by a gigantic projection screen that provides everything from virtual scenery to semipsychedelic light shows. Created by Cirque co-founder Normand Latourelle, the two-and-one-half-hour extravaganza mixes elements of old-time circus, New Age circus à la Cirque, rodeo stunts, a dash of modern dance, and some simply amazing communication between people and horses.

There's a Barnum & Bailey feeling when a draft horse patiently gallops in a circle while a gymnast does tricks on its back—difficult to do, to be sure, but hardly "a magical encounter between horse and man." This feeling is reinforced by a tendency to have several unrelated things going on at the same time (a team of acrobats at center stage, say, with a horse and rider walking around behind them).

But the horsemanship on display is superb. Several dazzling sequences of trick riding are at the pinnacle of any I've ever seen. In one, each of a group of riders stands astride a pair of horses, reins in hand, right out of Zorro. At first they simply gallop around this way, making it look easy, then they take on a series of jumps (yes, jumps). This sequence builds to a climax that takes the trick to another level, one you can hardly believe isn't CGI–generated. Later in the show comes a thrilling and often hilarious sequence in which a series of horses comes screaming across the stage at full gallop, each bearing a rider doing something absurdly difficult (lifting into a handstand, flipping from forward to backward, hanging upside down, etc.).

Yet the most memorable scene is the quietest: the show's climax, when Frédéric Pignon, Cavalia's equestrian director, works his communicative magic with three gorgeous white horses, with no bridles or restraints, no props, and no music. Pignon speaks quietly to the horses, touches them gently, and makes them do his bidding through a communion that's impossible to miss. By the time the scene ends, you've forgotten the cramped seats, the hassles of driving and parking, the superfluous blond interpretive dancer, the astronomical ticket prices, and the subpar bathrooms; you are transported. That's something not a lot of theater can do. NICHOLAS H. ALLISON

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