Regional Reviews: Boston
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
In the current production presented by the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, director Lee Mikeska Gardner has chosen an all-male cast to tell this story. The gender-bending feels Shakespearean in its approach; Hampton's play does have a hint of the Bard in its bed-swapping and delicious bon mots. (An example: "Love is something you use, not something you fall into, like quicksand.") In the program, Gardner writes that this casting decision requires men to "navigate an unequivocal male world as a woman." It's an intriguing jumping-off point; but, though it doesn't harm the play, having men fill the women's roles also doesn't add much.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses begins with a wager between the Marquise and Valmont, whom she notes was once "a man to be reckoned with." If he can prove his seduction of two womenthe devout Madame de Tourvel and the young waif Cecile Volangesthe Marquise will consent to one night alone with him, for old times' sake. It's a "heroic enterprise," she says, "something for your memoirs." The two schemers set down a path that leads to sex, love, and their inevitable ruin.
The cast plays their roles sincerely, without undue winking at the gender swap. Hampton's play adapts well to the stripped-down space of the Central Square Theater, where we can savor the comedy and feel the intimacy of Valmont's erotic advances. The costumes are kept simple, eschewing elaborate Revolution-era gowns and corsets. But the all-male casting minimizes some of the play's more uncomfortable plot points. Valmont's seduction of Cecile begins with him begging a kiss, then taking full advantage of her as her resistance fades away. In the moment, we aren't sure how voluntary her surrender is. I realized how differently Valmont's lechery would play with a woman opposite him.
Nonetheless, two of the actors offer winning performances in the lead women's roles. Eddie Shields is affecting as the Presidente de Tourvel, a woman of great moral and religious conviction who wars with her own uprightness as her affectation for Valmont increases. Shields finds a steadiness and strength in the principled Tourvel, suggesting she gives herself to Valmont on her own terms. And as the grand Marquise de Merteuil, Greg Maraio fully inhabits the savvy but wounded con artist in all of her rich contradictions. There's a continual twinkle in Maraio's eye that fades only when the Marquise is alone. He skillfully manages the role's requisite hauteur, presiding over everyone's affairs like Joan Crawford ready to pounce.
As her partner in duplicity, Dan Whelton's Valmont doesn't always command the stage with the same ease. Opposite the Marquise, he sometimes feels like he's in a different play. In their verbal matches, Whelton is the subdued partner, lightly lobbing the ball back after Maraio impeccably serves it up each time. And he doesn't always project his voice loudly enough. Whelton's performance grows stronger as this Casanova develops real, honest feelings for Tourvel, in spite of all his manipulations until then. The rest of the cast is mixed; some smaller cameo roles are better played than the less dimensional young lovers and meddlesome parents.
As the Marquise proclaims in a tasty monologue comparing the sexes, "women are obliged to be far more skillful than men." Maybe Hampton is on to something. The Marquise is, as she herself admits, a master of improvisation in a world where women reinvent themselves to survive. Listening to this speech, I wondered if an all-female cast might be more revelatory. The female characters are largely at the whim of men's affections. A casting swap in the other direction might more successfully reclaim centuries of rigid gender roles. As it stands, the current production offers many pleasures, though the liaisons are more delicate than dangerous.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses, through July 1, 2018, by the Nora Theatre Company at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA 02139. Tickets can be purchased at centralsquaretheater.org, by phone at 617-576-9278 x1, or at the box office.
Cast: Jaime Carillo (Volanges), Greg Maraio (Merteuil), Maurice Emmanuel Parent (Azolan), Dave Rich (Rosemonde), Eddie Shields (Tourvel), Felton Sparks (Ensemble), Stewart Evan Smith (Danceny), John Tracey (Emilie), James Wechsler (Cecile), Dan Whelton (Valmont).
Creative Team: Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner; Assistant Director: Allison Olivia Choat; Stage Managers: Sam Layco, Lauren Burke; Scenic Design: Janie E. Howland; Associate Scenic Design: Abby Shenkar; Costume Design: Elizabeth Rocha; Lighting Design: John R. Malinowski; Sound Design: David Bryan Jackson; Intimacy and Fight Directors: Claire Warden, Ted Hewlett; Dialect Director: Olivia D'Ambrosio.