In classic horror stories, vampires kill people for food. And they like it. In Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' classic French drama Les Liaisons Dangereuses, sexy French aristocrats are intentionally cruel to people. And they like it, too. It was clearly just a matter of time before someone stumbled upon the notion of slipping bloodsucking immortals into Laclos' 130-year-old story, as James Newman, artistic director of SRJC's Summer Repertory Theater, has now done with his crafty world premiere play Dangerous Liaisons with Vampires.
That title pretty much says it all. The tale made known in the Oscar-nominated movie Dangerous Liaisons has now been tweaked, twisted, transformed and added to a long line of recent literary-horror mashups that include the bestselling novels Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (soon to be a major motion picture starring Natalie Portman).
The very idea of cramming monsters and bloodletting into such decorum-filled works of fiction is just so delightfully, satisfyingly weird. The same is true of Dangerous Liaisons with Vampires.
With this new production, directed with visual flair by Elizabeth Gardiner, playwright Newman reveals himself to be a worthy craftsman of the mash-up genre. The Vicomte de Valmont (Ricco Fajardo) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Vanessa Gibbons) have been vampires for years. Once lovers, they are now engaged in a decades-old competition, setting challenges for each other that involve difficult seductions—and of course, a bit of neck-biting and blood-draining. When Valmont sets himself his own challenge to seduce—and kill—a beautiful and deeply moral married woman named Christiana Torvel, a series of unexpected twists are set in place, as Merteuil grows increasingly jealous of Valmont's growing infatuation with the lovely mortal.
In the original novel, the seductions and subsequent abandonment were plenty to illustrate the metaphorically soulless existence of the upper crust; literally turning them into soulless bloodsuckers pushes the nastiness and the sense of looming danger up a good notch or two. With a clever stage design by Daniel Willis, and some elegant sound and lighting effects by Jeff Polunas and Chris Littman, respectively, the scenes shift from 1789 Paris to 1989 New Orleans to modern-day San Francisco.
The major weakness in this production belongs to the actors, and illuminates the pro and con issues that often come up with SRT shows. Is this a theater company or a training ground for young actors? The answer, of course, is both. Though certainly committed and obviously talented, the cast of Dangerous Liaisons with Vampires (especially those playing the vampires), cannot conjure the grounded, age-old, world-weary maturity of someone who has lived for hundreds of years. Though Gibbons nails her character's watchful disdain for everything around her, she never convincingly sheds her twenty-something mannerism, and as the supposedly self-controlled and experienced Valmont, Fajardo seems downright puppyish.
Still, if one views this production as the test run of a delightful and entertaining new play—one that will hopefully be picked up by other companies in the near future—then SRT's Dangerous Liaisons with Vampires stands as a offbeat, edgy triumph.
'Dangerous Liaisons with Vampires' runs in repertory through Aug. 3 in the Newman Auditorium, on the SRJC campus, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. $10&–$20. 707.527.4343.