Playing dirty

Sex.

Now that I have your attention … this piece is actually about, well, sex. It’s also about seduction, betrayal and scandal among the elite — and yes, there is nudity involved.

I know, you’re thinking reruns of Dallas, or maybe Melrose Place — but what I’m talking about is the unparalleled predecessor to all those smutty shows we’ve secretly loved.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the grandest soap opera of them all.

Relative newcomer the Highland Repertory Theatre kicks off its second season with this naughty little number — and there’s a lot more to it than even the amply stuffed corset on the publicity poster suggests.

“Most of the stuff we’ve done has had some kind of edge,” says Andrew Gall, the group’s co-founder and artistic director. “The niche we’ve made for ourselves is that we do things with a punch to them.”

Past productions have included this summer’s Stop Kiss, about an attraction between two women that precipitates a hate crime.

“People have been really interested in the fact that we’re not doing the nice, neat Broadway musical,” Gall admits. “We’re doing work about real people, and our audience has embraced that.”

“We want to do shows of great merit,” adds actor Tracey Johnston-Crum, who’s attracted to the play as both theater and literature. “It’s important to me, having worked many years as a professional actor, to have professional theater in Asheville.”

You’ve probably seen Dangerous Liaisons, the movie version starring Glenn Close and the exquisitely sinister John Malkovich — but the story dates back to a 1782 novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by French author Choderlos des Laclos. It was his one attempt at literature and was widely embraced as a scandalous success — in fact, 50 editions of the book were published in Laclos’ lifetime.

The book was crafted as a series of letters depicting the sexual adventures of the French aristocracy during the 18th century. These were the days of pre-revolution excess and indulgence; society, for the wealthy, was everything, and a person’s reputation could be annihilated with a casual turn of phrase. The art of seduction and ruination became a game for the bored nobility, who looked down their noses at sentimental, romantic love.

The story regained popularity in 1985 when Christopher Hampton created a play based on the novel for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was also Hampton who wrote the screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons.

“This is a very old story,” notes Gall. “The fact that it’s racy isn’t really the point of doing it, but there are still people in the world who behave like these characters, and we still excuse them.”

The plot revolves around the arrogant Marquise de Merteuil and the dashing Vicomte de Valmont, two bored members of the upper class. The Marquise schemes revenge on her lover, Gercourt, who’s planning to marry an innocent girl named Cecile de Volanges. The plan is for the Marquise’s co-conspirator, the Vicomte, to seduce Cecile, thus ruining her reputation and ridiculing Gercourt.

Gall plays the Vicomte, whom he describes as “someone who is rich beyond imagination and has nothing to do. He’s spent his life in the pursuit of sexual conquest. He lives very much in the moment and is caught up in his own games.” Johnston-Crum plays the Marquise, a wealthy woman in her early 30s who, by virtue of being widowed, is able to live her life as she pleases.

In a time when women had very little freedom, a few managed to find autonomy through a loophole in the system: They were married young to wealthy husbands who then died, leaving them with means. If they then refused to remarry and relinquish their property to another man, they could take a string of lovers and live as they wished. Such is the situation of the Marquise.

“She was a product of her environment,” Johnston-Crum asserts. “She reinvented herself and the roles of women. I have some of the greatest lines you’ll ever hear — it’s pretty harsh, but it goes back to the value of one’s reputation. Back then, women were especially victimized in that way, and the Marquise didn’t put up with it.”

Gall is a little less forgiving of his character: “We’re all fascinated by people like this, people who are so free of the moral code. They’re horrible and fascinating at the same time. The idea that these people were out there then — and are stillout there — is really intriguing.

“This [play] is dark, but in a funny, witty way,” he continues. “We all have it in us to be that bad … what if we could be that mean and get away with it? We’re all very curious about it, deep down, but we don’t want the consequences.”

As Highland Rep dives headlong into its second season, Gall takes a moment to savor the success of doing things differently. In the first season, the company finished in the black. “We didn’t make much money,” Gall cautions. Still, it’s a sign that the community is embracing edgier theater.

“I don’t know how the audience will respond to Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” he confesses. “The play talks about sex and using sex irresponsibly — but sex is always interesting.

“Is this play going to give people the secret to life?” he asks. “No. Will it entertain people?”

Gall again answers his own question: “Oh yes.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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