It's interesting that ISU's School of Theatre scheduled Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" back to back, since both involve illicit affairs, sexual trickery and immorality. The difference is that Hampton (and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, who wrote the epistolary novel upon which Hampton's play is based) wrote about characters who really don't struggle with right and wrong. These French aristocrats gleefully wallow in wrong, splashing cruelty, deception and betrayal around like fine champagne.
In their world, sex isn't really about pleasure, but more about power and control, even degradation and humiliation if it suits their fancy. And it definitely suits the two main characters, the reprobate Vicomte de Valmont and his beautiful, evil pal, the Marquise de Merteuil, as they plot to seduce and ruin young innocents just because they can.
Director Jon Ferreira, an MFA candidate, puts the emphasis on facades and artifice in his production for ISU. The set, designed by Alex K, is all pretty pastels and rococo flourishes, almost like a dollhouse. Or maybe like the George Barbier illustrations that accompany the 1934 edition of the Choderlos de Laclos novel. The set is almost too pretty, just like the grand gowns from costume designer Lauren Lowell and the oversized wigs from hair designer Tina Godziszewski. It's as if all the people on stage are hiding behind a wall of opulence and glitter. Fake, fake and more fake.
The original British production of Hampton's play took a different tack, paring it down and using a lot of white and neutrals in the costumes and set pieces. That approach worked to make Valmont look more attractive to our modern eyes (big wigs don't do much for men unless they're going for an Elvis or Mozart look) and also to make the action feel more raw and dangerous, less arch. Ferreira's concept is clearly to hightlight the fakery, but still... It's a bit distancing.
As Valmont and Merteuil, Josh Innerst and Jessie Dean come off clever and seductive, playing somewhat younger, more headstrong versions of the characters than you may be used to if you've seen the movies with John Malkovich and Glenn Close or Colin Firth and Annette Bening in those roles. It doesn't hurt that Dean looks absolutely gorgeous in her pre-Revolution French finery.
Credit is also due to Innerst, Emily Nichelson (as young Cecile Volanges) and Hannah Brown (as a different playmate of Valmont's) for jumping head-first into the sexy stuff and making it work.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Christopher Hampton
based on the book by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
ISU Center for the Performing Arts
Director: Jon Ferreira
Scenic Designer: Alex K
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Hair and Makeup Designer: Tina Godziszewski
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Sound Designer: Jason Tucholke
Cast: Hannah Brown, Jessie Dean, Josh Innerst, Alex Kostner, Jared Kugler, Colleen Longo, Uretta Lovell, Deirdre McNulty, Becky Miller, Emily Nichelson, Steve Ullstead, Chana-Lise Wilczynski, Antonio Zhiurinskas.