Dallas — With the onslaught of recent news about asylum-seeking refugees being kept in cages and children being separated from families upon entry to the U.S., it can seem as if a play from the 1980s based on a book published 200 years earlier would be little more than a distraction. That is not the case with Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Yes, it is entertaining. Enjoyable, even. But it also raises pertinent questions about how we got here.
Tiffany Nichole Greene artfully directs Theatre Three’s production of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 Les Liaisons Dangereuses (French for “dangerous liaisons”). The play, adapted from a 1782 French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, is currently running at the Norma Young Arena Stage, T3’s main stage through July 8.
The play’s characters can be divided into two main groups: the libertines and the dupes. Dominant among the libertines are the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, followed closely by their associates: a major-domo, a valet, and a courtesan. The main dupes, blinded by inexperience, naiveté, and faith in an already bygone social order, are Madame de Tourvel, Cécile de Volanges, and her crush, the chivalrous Danceny.
Cindee Mayfield is a force to be reckoned with as the Marquise de Merteuil, who holds herself artfully aloof while manipulating those around her. She appears to be the mastermind behind all the machinations. By setting herself up as Cécile’s confidant, she, in effect, takes the place of her confessor, mirroring the shift from Europe’s decadent Catholicism of the Baroque era to the ideology of the libertine.
Instead of a presumed concern for the salvation of souls, the libertine ideology prized earthly desire over transcendent passion. Along with the Enlightenment, a concurrent social movement that valued reason above all else, libertinism abandoned traditional Christian values and social mores. It was during this time that physical pleasure itself, along with deception and manipulation, became a raison d'être.
Despite her masterful scheming, however, Merteuil is not really in control. She’s a scorned woman, blinded by her rage for the Comte de Gercourt, a person who never appears onstage. He is the phantom ex-lover upon whom Merteuil intends to exact revenge by corrupting Cécile, his betrothed.
Equally well cast is Brandon Potter as the Vicomte de Valmont. One character describes the vicomte as “conspicuously charming” and never opening “his mouth without first calculating what damage he can do.” In this role, Potter captivates with his devilish charisma. Like the other characters, the dupes, the audience submits to his seductions.
In one of the funnier, more risqué scenes, filled with double entendres and fleshly punctuation, Valmont pens a love letter to Tourvel in flagrante delicto with courtesan Emilie. In the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it is a difficult scene to negotiate, surely as much for the actors as for the audience, who laughs while squirming uncomfortably in their seats.
As for the play’s dupes, Lydia Mackay brings a lightness to Madame de Tourvel’s tortured soul. She portrays her devout and happily married character persuasively without relying on melodramatic effects. Samantha Behen convincingly plays the fresh-from-the-convent Cécile, who takes to her lessons in libertinism like a duck to water. Jonah Munroe as Danceny seems truly distressed about his shift from shy chevalier to the marquise’s boy toy.
Then there are those characters, specifically Volanges and Rosemonde, who, though skillfully deploying their own cunning, nevertheless get duped on occasion. Charlotte Akin and Gail Cronauer are perfectly cast as Madame de Volanges and Madame de Rosemonde, respectively. They both believably navigate the difficult dual roles of pawns who also orchestrate their own network of letters and intrigue.
Director Greene has clearly put together a great cast and crew. For this production, she restages the play in a nonspecific time so that its relevant commentary on today’s world can better surface. You won’t see powdered wigs. Instead, costumes, designed by Susan Yanofsky, are contemporary dress and apt for the production.
Greene makes smart use of the space, both horizontally as well as vertically. Transitions between scenes, when actors and stagehands reset the stage, are smooth. The duel, choreographed by Jeff Colangelo, is exciting.
The set design by Inseung Park, however, does not quite match the general aristocratic milieu. Some of the chairs, for example, are shabby, failing to properly suggest opulence or the conspicuous consumption of the upper-crust characters. Also, the hanging window frames above the stage, which help to define a vast space, seem more appropriate for a play set during the last years of the Ancien Régime than for Theatre Three’s updated version.
At a time when ideology saturates our own politics and permeates our social media, it does not require too much of a stretch of the imagination to understand that a letter in 18th-century France is the technological equivalent to a Facebook post or a Tweet in 2018. These are the ways we continue to manipulate and are continually manipulated today, within a framework that is both private and public. Image is everything; power remains unabated.
Even with Valmont’s death and the apparent unmasking of Merteuil’s subterfuge, one gets the sense at the end of the play that nothing is really put straight. No justice is served. Very little, it seems, has changed since the time of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, of both the novel and the play.
In an essay that typically prefaces the French novel, French writer (and Minister of Cultural Affairs under Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s and ’60s) André Malraux describes the marquise and vicomte as characters heretofore unprecedented in European literature. By embodying libertine ideals, they become archetypes themselves.
An entire line of despicably feckless and unrepentant characters follows, both in the literary world (think of Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, who misgauges his intelligence and ability to commit the “perfect” murder) and in the real world (think of any politician who un-ironically claims to be “a very stable genius”). As Volanges explains to her still-innocent daughter, “You’ll soon find that society is riddled with such inconsistencies: we’re all aware of them, we all deplore them and in the end we all accommodate to them.”
The characters of Les Liaisons Dangereuses have spawned our world. Go see Theatre Three’s production, if only to gauge your own accommodation to the inconsistencies that govern us still.