Drama Between the Sheets
The evolution of an 18th century trashy romance novel
UNLOCKING THE BODY: Seduction and the mystery within.
by Trace Bateman
Sex, deceit, manipulation and power guided by an evil hand are commonplace themes in most modern films and television shows. In 1782, parading these themes through a novel was not so easily accepted. When Les Liaisons Dangereuses was published, a criminal court decided the book should be incinerated, but the damage had already been done. Paris booksellers couldn’t keep illicit copies on their shelves for more than a few days.
Two hundred years later, the novel was still selling and being adapted to other mediums. Hollywood made it into a period film, Dangerous Liaisons , in the late ‘80s, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer. A decade and a half after that it was translated yet again to film— Cruel Intentions —this time for a younger audience.
Perhaps you’ve read the novel. Maybe you’ve seen the film incarnations and think that you don’t need to see the story told again. But you must not forget that the theater is an intimate environment and, in a space like the Black Box Theatre, proximity to the players draws you even closer to the characters and their emotions. When presented with a story as torrid and ruthless as Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Cholderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses , you squirm in your wooden chair, slightly uncomfortable but unblinking.
The story, originally set in 18th-century Paris, relies on arranged marriages, social etiquette, letter correspondence and a time when women died of grief. The Marquise de Merteuil, a master of sexual manipulation, partners with her former lover the Vicomte de Valmont, whose amorphous charm earns his reputation for seduction. They slip behind the facade of French aristocracy and wield the power of sex as a weapon.
Valmont seeks to conquer the famously virtuous Madame de Tourvel as a proclamation of his particular talent, while Merteuil is guided by revenge. Young Cecile Volanges is to marry a former jilt of Merteuil. With the intention of humiliating him on his coming wedding night, Merteuil gains Cecile’s trust and sends Valmont to seduce and “educate” her, a task Valmont believes to be a waste of his potential. Nevertheless, Valmont seduces Cecile in one of the most striking scenes in the performance. Martha Reddick as Cecile is both frightened and intrigued by the uncomfortably aggressive Valmont.
Hampton’s script is cleverly loaded with innuendo and centers around the exploits of Valmont as he juggles the bidding of Merteuil and his own desires. James Francis, in a heroic effort as Valmont, appears in virtually every scene. He is forceful in his seduction, deceptively sincere in his newfound morality, and at his best as the playfully confident conqueror exercising his wit.
While Valmont is the active hand, Merteuil, played by Sara Schwabe, is the mastermind, devising a way for a woman to gain power within a male-dominated aristocratic society. As a wealthy widow, she has the men she wants and tosses them aside upon her own whim. Relying on blackmail, the misguided trust of the unknowing, and the manipulation of men’s desire, she motivates all that transpires on stage.
The Actor’s Co-op adaptation, under the direction of Tony Cedeno, brings Les Liaisons Dangereuses into the 1950s, which manifests itself mostly in excellent wardrobe accessories.Though changing the setting can frustrate the balance of propriety and social constraint that is dominant in old time European aristocracy, the ‘50s time designation conjures the sentiment of the restricted housewife. In the end, the time change amounts to a transparent filter through which the story comes closer to the audience.
The production is focused on the characters, their words and their actions. The set is malleable and simple. The parlors, back rooms and bedrooms are easily transformed by the actions of the players and the addition of a few well-chosen props. The setting for each scene is dictated by an emotional climate that exudes from the actors rather than props, a wise choice for such a meticulously crafted play.
Ultimately, like its two lead characters, the play is propelled by the momentum of its own intrigue. The story and performances build and intertwine within one another so magnificently that the conclusion comes too quickly. The final two scenes, while earned, seem skimmed-over in relation to the rest of the play, which is thorough in both preparation and execution.
In the opening of this production, Merteuil and Valmont encircle each other. The lights are left low as they pause, face-to-face, for a weighted moment before breaking apart, setting the first scene of the play. Cedeno tells the audience in this unspoken moment that Les Liasons Dangereuses is their story, one in which true emotion spoils intellect and reveals weakness. Merteuil and Valmont scoff at love and prey on those that melt in its presence, and yet it is their own happiness that is left unclaimed as the play draws to a close. Their game is left only to be played, and to win is an elusive ideal that continues to slip just out of reach .
What: Les Liasons Dangereuses Where: Black Box Theatre When: Dec. 8 thru 17, Thursdays thru Saturdays, 8 p.m. How Much: Tickets are $8 to $16. Call 584-0990 for more information and reservations.