Mounting a production of LES LIASONS DANGEREUSES, Christopher Hampton’s witty and disturbing adaptation of the 1782 Laclos novel, is not for the faint of heart. Pendragon Theatre has taken a gallant stab at this tale of malevolence and twisted one-upmanship. The story concerns two bored aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, her former paramour, who entertain themselves by manipulating others. They make wagers on who will more quickly corrupt an innocent and both believe, as the play says, “Love is something you use, not something you fall into.”
This is strong stuff that demands a strong director and Karen Lordi Kirkham has shied away from dealing with it. Although her staging is fairly good, she’s allowed her cast to play the end of the story in the beginning, missing the lightness and wit of the early scenes. On top of that, there’s no underlying malevolence in their games on the part of either the Marquise or Valmont, nor is there any evil glee at their successes.
Kent Streed has done a fine job with the set, using multiple screens, drapes and carpets to create multiple playing areas. The elegant chandelier could be a bit lower though – I almost missed it. Bonnie B. Brewer’s excellent lighting helps define the changes of scene and location. Bruce Brownlee has done a nice job of staging the duel.
The costumes designed by Julia Ferreri are very good and I applaud the decision not to use wigs. However, the gowns for the Marquise, although elegant, need far tighter bodice lacing. They allow very relaxed body language, such as leaning back in a chair, that’s totally out of period.
Mackenzie Barmen does well with the innocent Cecile, initiated into the world of games by Valmont, as does Donna Moschek as Emilie, Valmont’s favorite courtesan. Harrison Ewing is outstanding as Azolan, Valmont’s servant and his comic timing is impeccable.
As Danceny, Cecile’s naïve suitor, Tyler Nye is quite believable as is Laura-Jean Swanson as Cecile’s mother. As the virtuous Madame de Tourvel Ginger Lee McDermott gives a touching performance, while Binnie Ritchie Holum is just fine as Valmont’s aunt.
As for Susan Neal as the Marquise and Joe Guzman as Valmont, obviously they’re both experienced actors. However neither has the necessary edge of evil that would make the characters believable. They’re playing these games for fun, but don’t seem to be having any. These are complex characters who are deliciously malicious under their courtly exteriors.
By allowing her two leading actors, especially Miss Neal, to omit this element of their characters, director Kirkham has cut out the core of the play and missed the point. These are witty, sophisticated and cruel games of manipulation. Without the gleeful malevolence, what we’re left with is a depressing 18th Century soap opera.
Although I respect the decision to attempt this difficult piece, the finished product falls short. Neither the play’s wit nor its disturbing qualities come through. Unfortunately there are no snakes in this garden.
On a scale of one to five the Pendragon Theatre production of LES LIASONS DANGEREUSES gets three and a half pine trees. For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.