Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton, adapted from the novel by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos. Directed by Tina Packer.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"In the end, we all accommodate to them."
Josh Aaron McCabe and Elizabeth Aspenlieder; pre-productiopn photo by Jeremy Goodwin
Love isn’t always the answer. Those with defeated libidos, disaffected hearts, insensate minds and egos, may not find love of any sort to be the saving grace it is cracked up to be. In the 1780s upperclass French world of Christopher Hampton’s play too many people find love to be either a game or an indiscretion or an act of defiance. Late in the play the two edgy protagonists of this high-risk story take their indiscreet games to a new level as they declare in a single word their true intentions toward one another: "war!" All is fair in either form of social interaction, apparently, and in the end, everyone does indeed fall into line with this declaration.
Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil are among the most intriguing fictional creations of all time. Neither one has a moral code that allows for innocence or humility. Best friends for years they each enjoy the other’s affairs, encouraging and challenging one another to do more, to defile more, to destroy more. She, a widow, has taken her wealth and position - both of which are enhanced by her beauty and seductive nature - to extraordinary heights of control as she becomes the confidante of other women and young girls whom she guides effortlessly into the horny arms of her friend Valmont. He, a man of strength and power, has delighted in introducing these women to all sorts of perversions while aiding younger men to follow in his footsteps.
It all comes to a head in their current flings. Neither one anticipates the power of love in its purest state and when Valmont becomes affected by his own, long withheld passions, the roof of their jointly built pergola of sex literally crashes in on them, destroying their game once and for all. I have seen this story end with violence to both. I have seen it end with the exposure of their intent and the ruination of reputations. I have seen it played with a contempt for the inevitable and with a hopeless betrayal of the route to redemption. At Shakespeare and Company’s winter production on the Elayne P. Bernstein stage it ends with a reference to Hamlet (which seems natural) and a whimpering of women.
Tina Packer has directed her company of eleven players with style and a sometimes too foppish sensibility. She has found, or injected, more pockets of humor than I remembered in this Hampton version. She has almost endeared the Marquise to her audience. Her Valmont, however, loops back and forth from a strong sensual male to a bisexually available creature. The gestures of true fops and the movement of true fags fluctuate delicately along a thin line and in this case the Valmont crosses the line far too often. Had it been the director’s intent to show the cross-sexuality of the play’s male lead character she should have extended it into his final scene with his younger protegee. That would have truly made their liaisons dangerous.
Packer also has used the image of a chess game indiscreetly in two scenes where the leads take a clearly challenging dialogue that her actors are playing brilliantly and added the oddest of physical movements, including a hopscotch competition. This removes some of the edge needed between them on their way to total "war" and makes them needlessly ridiculous. The chess game image could have worked with a different floor pattern of smaller squares and a naturalistic use of that pattern but it certainly doesn’t work in its current configuration.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder plays the Marquise with an elegant flourish. The innocence of her face is an overlay in this performance, masking the mind of a hell-cat. Her costumes, conceived by Govane Lohbauer, are beautifully wrong, hiding the cleavage that should entice men, encourage women, entertain the audience in seductive ways. There is never a moment when we see her uncorseted and in full, sexual dudgeon. Merteuil is an ancient seductress in a modern setting. Her openness and availability to her friends is what makes her so dangerous. Aspenlieder plays this wonderfully, but she is far too constrained by adapted costumes that keep her rigid and anti-sensual. Instead of the uncomfortable fears we should feel with each of her entrances we are guided into a complacent level of relationship with her. Nevertheless this is a role this actress takes on with a full steam ahead intent and it carries her through to the end which completes the story with a sadness rather than a full-blown regret at the loss of a prime contender.
Josh Aaron McCabe as Valmont is doing some exquisite work but he also has been led into different visual expressions as noted above. His poses are too much the period fop - think Osric in Hamlet or Lord Foppington in Lock Up Your Daughters - and not enough the Dandy. While the Marquise fantasizes about same sex union, Valmont never does. McCabe, in his scenes of seduction, is forthrightly male and is so convincing in his earnestness that the "other" actions are strikingly out of place. His love-scenes and rejection of love-scenes are heartfelt and sincere and that is confusing enough given the nature of his character. His betrayal of that saving grace of true love, which so informs the story, is chilling. It is a performance that could have been perfect, if warmer than in other versions I have watched, had the director guided him into the character rather than skirting it with unsatisfying and unnecessary gestures and poses.
As Madame de Tourvel, the woman who inadvertently destroys the game played by the two leads, Kelly Galvin gives a lovely, charming performance. Lydia Barnett-Mulligan plays the convent educated virgin, Cecile de Volanges, with believable sensitivities. Alexandra Lincoln makes the most of her two scenes of erotica. Enrico Spada as the young swain Danceny is bright and believable as the face of just-corrupted innocence striving to rid himself of guilt.
A surprise is the Azolan, Valmont’s servant. Normally a throw-away role created to provide some necessary information, Scott Renzoni plays the part with wicked intensity and creates a very honest character who is simply unforgettable. As with his performance in "Cindy Bella" Renzoni completes his portrayal with look, voice, movement and gestures that suggest he is capable of much better things than we’ve seen from him in the lobby where he usually manages the refreshment counter. Note to Shakes&Co: Keep this actor growing.
Renee Margaret Speltz gives an almost realized honesty to Madame de Rosemonde whose silliness is often stressed over her sincerity. With Speltz it is the other way around and in the last scene of the play she delivers nicely on the honesty and makes us see, for the first time in the play, why the guillotine imagery of the show’s final moments are so necessary here.
Alexander Sovronsky’s music works well in the transitions between each of the eighteen scenes. Carl Sprague’s spare set works well and Stephen Ball’s lighting was unintrusive and could have been more helpful in area playing.
This colorful play has been given a chromatically diminished production that works very well but is not perfect. The show, which runs almost three hours, is a worthwhile excursion into the parallel lives of the French upper classes of the 1780s and the American upper-middle classes of the 1980s, the time when the play was written and first seen. It works today, in this new production, as a historic play of the former era only. It does a decent job of it, but it loses some of its appeal by narrowing its focus.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts through March 21. Tickets range in price from $16-$48. For information and reservations call 413-637-3353 or go on line to firstname.lastname@example.org.