Do the games of the Marquise and Valmont still have the same old sinful fire and political relevance?
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Scenic design by Janie E. Howland. Staged by the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theatre, Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA, through July 1.
By David Greenham
In the fall of 1985, when the sexual games of La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont were played out on the studio theater stage of the RSC’s Other Space, it made for sensational theater. Christopher Hampton’s unflinching stage adaptation of the classic late 18th century epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos shocked audiences with its suavely coarse depiction of sexual manipulation. Alan Rickman slithered about as Valmont while Lindsay Duncan went on to win acting honors on both sides of the Atlantic for her velvety and ruthless Marquise.
Since then Les Liaisons dangereuses has been frequently and significantly revived. A notable reinvention occurred in 2005, when Lee Mikeska Gardner directed an all-male production of the play at the Actors’ Theatre in Washington, D.C.. Now the Artistic Director of the Nora Theatre Company, Gardner is re-cycling the concept. Over a decade later, do the games of the Marquise and Valmont still have the same old sinful fire and political relevance?
The script is set in the days just before the French Revolution. All of the major characters are members of the aristocracy; the Marquise (Greg Maraio) and Valmont (Dan Whelton) are at the steamy center of the story. Former lovers, they verbally spar, pose, and deceive their way through a series of sexual encounters that interweave the sincere and phony. Competition among pleasure-seekers reigns. “Remember,” Valmont warns, “I’m better at this than you are.” The Marquise purrs back, “Perhaps, but it’s always the best swimmers who drown.”
Professional libertine Valmont sets his charismatic eyes on the pious and devoted La Presidente de Tourvel (wonderfully performed by Eddie Shields) and, as a lascivious afterthought, seduces innocent Cécile Volanges (James Wechsler). The Marquise, meanwhile, cultivates the enthusiastic but unprepared Le Chevalier Danceny (Stewart Evan Smith). Naturally, the scheming unravels, and Hampton cleverly keeps the audience guessing about high scorer until the penultimate scene. In the end, this exercise in seduction and counter-seduction is tossed aside (desperately) as if it were a meaningless diversion. “Our best course,” the Marquise concludes, “is to continue the game.” Needless to say, time would soon run out for the aristocrats: angry mobs and a guillotine put an an end to privilege, although Hampton’s point in the mid-’80s was that this kind of manipulative dehumanization continues to thrive centuries later among a moneyed ‘aristocracy.’
In its program notes, the production indicates a level of fear (or would that be hope?) that an all-male version of the play would be disturbing, or at the very least provocative. The male actors in the women’s roles, we’re informed, are not portraying women, but exploring universal human qualities. It’s an admirable goal, but the production falls short, save for a touching performance by Eddie Shields (Elliot Norton Awards judges take note). The actors struggle with the gender issues — are they playing men, women, hermaphrodites? Too often what we get are stereotypical versions of ‘slinking’ femininity. Ironically, some of the male characters, particularly Dan Whelton’s Valmont, seem to experience the same struggles regarding gender identification.
That’s not to say the production’s approach isn’t compelling It is. Although articles on Gardner’s 2005 DC staging say that there was no ‘back stage.’ The actors were visible throughout the entire performance and reacted to the proceedings. That kind of Brechtian angle might have helped deepen and complicate the proceedings here.
This production features a truncated and incongruent set. It isn’t a surprise to learn that it was created by two designers, Janie E. Howland and associate designer Abby Shenker. It feels like two different scenic concepts colliding. On stage left there is a lovely, tall, and curtained entryway, beautifully draped. Aside from the painted floor, this is the only part of the set that reflects the excesses of the period. Unfortunately, it is offset by a two dimensional painted stone well in front of an incongruent pastoral setting. Dominating the stage is a daybed, which becomes the landing spot for almost all of the scenes — in one way or another.
Elizabeth Rocha’s costumes are modern takes on period garb. Each character wears brown pants and a variation on a pirate shirt – except for the times when they were nude and draped only in a curtain. Each figures also carries or wears an iconic prop or show-offy piece of jewelry.
The NTC production made use of an intimacy and violence director and an associate director. We’re also warned that the production includes nudity. But the episodes of intimacy and violence are so firmly controlled that they are bland. Ironically, the most powerful bursts of emotion in the show are the moments of pure, terrified silence provided by Shields’s Tourvel. In truth, the staging doesn’t proffer the customary polish and clarity of the Nora’s productions.
More important, the pitiless sexual gamesmanship dramatized in Les Liaisons Dangereuses was shocking 30 years ago. But it comes off as mild today, particularly in this political moment. In her program notes, Gardner explains that current events inspired her to take up (again) her all-male approach to Hampton’s play: the attacks on women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and the #MeToo movement. But, of course, it not just misbehaving aristocrats and their victims who are responsible for what is happening today in our elections and courtrooms. #MeToo, Moms Demand Action, LGBTQ supporters, and the March for Our Lives students are calling for structural changes among a broad swath of people and institutions. These calls for action are part of a long struggle for judgment and equality; #MeToo isn’t new to suffragettes and ERA supporters of decades past.
I’m new to the theater scene in Boston, and have found Gardner and the NTC to be committed to doing important and thought-provoking work. But this production doesn’t work as an effective dramatic comment on the forms that injustice and manipulation are taking today. And how they are being battled. (Might re-vamped versions of Jean Genet’s The Screens or The Balcony have been stronger choices in terms of exploring role-playing and reversals in domination and submission?) Perhaps the director should have made a more concerted effort to serve the naughty core of the narrative, to try to evoke the decadence that made the manhandling of innocents so spicy and immediate decades ago.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years