BWW Review: LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES: Bring on the Men
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Written by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Elizabeth Rocha; Lighting Design, John R. Malinowski; Composer/Sound Design, David Bryan Jackson; Intimacy & Violence Director, Claire Warden; Dialect Director, Olivia D'Ambrosio; Production Stage Manager, Sam Layco; Performance Stage Manager, Lauren Burke
Performances through July 1 by The Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-576-9278 or www.centralsquaretheater.org
Artistic Director Lee Mikeska Gardner embraces the mission of The Nora Theatre Company to "promote the feminine voice" with an all-male production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Christopher Hampton's 1985 adaptation from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos. Perhaps best known from the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, which starred Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, the pre-French revolution era story is decadent, delicious, overflowing with sexual intrigue, and populated with characters who mostly get what they deserve. In Gardner's retelling, the audience gets what it deserves, a thoroughly entertaining, albeit mildly risqué, evening at the theater.
Somewhat against expectations, each of the six actors who are cast as female characters play them as women, and no one is dressed in drag. In fact, Elizabeth Rocha's costumes have more uniformity than differences, with only an occasional frill or piece of jewelry added to distinguish a woman from a man. Instead, we are able to discern those who are cross-gender cast from the quartet of men who are cast in the roles of men, by the nuance, bearing, and gestures they employ. In a play that is all about game-playing, the top scorers are Greg Maraio as La Marquise de Merteuil (the Close role) and Dan Whelton as Le Vicomte de Valmont (the Malkovich role), with Eddie Shields as La Presidente de Tourvel (the Pfeiffer role) nipping at their heels.
Maraio and Shields seamlessly inhabit their female characters so well that one could be forgiven for forgetting that each has a Y chromosome. Merteuil is cool and calculating, nearly always in control of the situation, and Maraio uses his carriage and an economy of movement to convey her persona. Shields delicately captures Tourvel's uptight traits with a combination of nervous hand-wringing and proper posture, ultimately collapsing from the strain of it all. Whelton masterfully navigates Valmont's arc from the randy egoist through his transformation to self-discovery and ultimate demise. As scene partners, Maraio and Whelton personify the ex-lovers who enjoy their joint ventures of wreaking havoc on others, and know how to push each other's buttons, while Whelton and Shields build from a spark to a slow burn to a conflagration of emotion.
James Wechsler (Cécile Volanges) shines as one of Valmont's unassuming conquests, a young woman just out of the convent who is ripe for his plucking. Jaime Carrillo succeeds as Cécile's clueless mother (Mme. de Volanges), and Dave Rich is quietly shrewd as Valmont's aunt, Mme. de Rosemonde. John Tracey (Emilie) is a sassy courtesan who provides some amusement and Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Azolan) is Valmont's loyal squire. Stewart Evan Smith is the music teacher (Le Chevalier Danceny) smitten with Cécile and outsmarted by Merteuil and Valmont. Felton Sparks (Major-domo) is everyone's servant, diligently standing by the goings-on.
The action of the play takes place in various salons and bedrooms in and around Paris in the autumn and winter in the 1780s. Scenic designer Janie E. Howland uses a painted, pastoral backdrop, a faux stonewall, and one tall set piece with gauzy curtains for an entryway. Scenes and settings are altered by John R. Malinowski's effective lighting design, and sound designer David Bryan Jackson's compositions underscore scene changes and set the mood. Claire Warden's work as Intimacy & Violence Director is vital to the interest and authenticity of the staging.
Gardner first directed an all-male production of Liaisons in 2005 at the Actors' Theatre of Washington (D.C.), and much has transpired socially, culturally, and politically since that time. With a mixed gender cast, the play still has much to say about women's roles and challenges of the gender wars. However, having men portray women allows us to focus on the human qualities of each of the characters, gender notwithstanding, and hopefully connect with the heart and humor inherent in all of us.
Photo credit: A.R. Sinclair Photography (Greg Maraio)