Presented by The Nora Theatre Company
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Content Warning: (In the show’s own words.) Full nudity, sexual content, violence, and a damn good sword fight. Suggested age: 18 and over.
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Cambridge, MA) When dividing the population into a binary construct where one group is viewed as perpetually in danger of committing sexual indiscretions and possessing virtue that they may only give to certain people, and the other group is seen as committing indiscretions and betrayals because they can’t help themselves, yes, some awful dynamics are at play. In this production, the source material of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is not much altered, but the way it’s performed is. The players all appear to be male without makeup, dresses, or distinctive cosmetic traits, beyond the apparently random distribution of a few bits of jewelry, rosary beads, and gloves. To clarify, this is a faithful adaptation of a story where two manipulative, almost-lover aristocrats spend their time “ruining” innocence. The gender of the characters remains the same as it was in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos 1782 novel. The gender of the actors just doesn’t always conform to those of their characters. In having an all-male cast, gender is shown as the flimsy construct it is, and adherence to stringent, narrow roles reproduce only an eventual misery in everyone. But just because the proud Vicomte de Valmont (Dan Whelton) and perceptive Marquise de Merteuil (Greg Maraio) seem to see the pieces of the social contraption in which they move doesn’t mean they can escape the trap.
Greg Maraio’s Merteuil steals the show. His villainess prowls, lounges, and playfully flirts with Valmont, unmistakably feminine and bold within that femininity. As a deceiver of men, a cruel but quiet deliverer of punishment, she escapes compulsory obedience and subterfuge of her gender role. While doing so, however, she merrily throws other women under the bus and does little to challenge the overarching social structure. Just because she’s a victim of patriarchy doesn’t mean she doesn’t perpetuate it. When I reviewed Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of a Dangerous Liasons opera last year, the source of the character’s cruelty seemed to come from money and unfettered power. Here, it’s the trauma of patriarchy, and seeing the limitations of your life spelled out in your gender role.
Whelton’s Valmont is well-wrought in that he uses his charm to mask his gaslighting scumminess. He is callous and does not so much as undergo a change of heart during the show as realize he’s a little less free of human emotion than he previously believed. His turns of phrase are cruelly manipulative, especially when coming up against the lovely La Presidente de Tourvel (played with heartbreaking sincerity by Eddie Shields). Tourvel, morally upright and aware not is all as it seems with Valmont, is imprisoned by the belief that her virtue is more valuable than her own self. With Merteuil, however, Valmont is honest about his cruelty, matching wits and stoking impressive chemistry.
The fifteen-year old Cecile Volanges (played with impressive vulnerability by James Wechsler) is has been kept docile and naive by a convent education. She’s quickly caught by Valmont’s manipulation. Danceny (Stewart Evan Smith), a young scholar, gives a similarly doe-eyed performance, at least until Merteuil and Valmont pull him into their orbit.
Jaime Carrillo plays Cecile’s mother, Madame Volanges, and appears to struggle to portray femininity even if he still manages a sketch of a worried parent. In the production I saw, his mannerisms remained contemporarily masculine, and I hope his portrayal grows throughout successive performances.
The effect of making all the players one gender is intriguing, though I’m not sure it’s as revolutionary as Les Liaisons Dangereuses’s press packet indicates. All-male casts were certainly the norm in Elizabethan England when the theater barred actresses from performing. The play’s central conceit could very well be a tribute to theater’s own history. If you walked into the show with one idea of what gender is, I’m not sure this production will change your mind.
The “male gaze” is mostly deconstructed in the uniform costuming. Director Lee Mikeska Gardner has all the actors wear variations of the same shade of white shirt. Some of the shirts are buttoned up higher than others to hint at modesty, others cut into V’s or studded with rhinestones. The subtle design choices make the core theme of the production explicit: gender is a construct created through differences cosmetic, taught, and/or enormously small. This construct is one that has more sway over who we see as virtuous and “ruined,” who can and should be manipulated and why, when everyone could have the chance to stand on equal footing.