At its core, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a story about power—how you can exploit it, how you can cultivate it, how you can lose it. First written as an epistolary novel in 1782, the work was rewritten as a play in 1985, which inspired the Academy Award-winning Dangerous Liaisons three years later. The visual excess and iconic performances of the film could easily steamroll any theatrical production that sought to compete; Director Tiffany Nicole Greene rightly gives the rendition its own emotional dynamics and visual design.
The play centers the sexual exploits of French socialites the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont as they pursue sexual conquest and social revenge. No deed is too immoral for the two allies, once lovers, who would rather kill or die than fail to earn their dangerous reputations. Unchanged from the original script, Theatre Three’s production navigates difficult territory as it treads between depicting and rehashing.
“It’s important to revisit these plays…and infuse them with new knowledge, new perspective, new love, new ideas,” Greene says.
To a degree, the production succeeds. The character of Valmont’s valet is played by a woman, rendering the valet’s relationship in the play the only homosexual pairing. The scenic and costume design are also revamped, the cast in modern dress amidst white 1960s patio chairs and a Victorian-style fainting couch.
Cindy Mayfield (Marquise de Merteuil) is undoubtedly the star of Liaisons. Those familiar with the film adaptation will notice Mayfield’s departure from Glenn Close’s tense, rageful interpretation of the role. Whereas Close evokes a startling turbulence as she plots her trysts and vengeances, Mayfield operates with intoxicating ease. Frenzies of passion encircling the marquise only amplify Mayfield’s cool magnetism. Though she plays a minor character, Gail Cronauer stands out as the aunt Rosemonde, who seamlessly transports the character into a modern context. While the stiff language of the play restrains the other actors at times, Cronauer really does feel like she could be your eccentric, warm-hearted aunt. Gloria Benavides instills her role as Emilie the courtesan with a selfhood completely lacking in her on-screen counterpart. The rendition’s compelling moments speak to the complexity of life that accompanies any position in society. Most successfully, the production is charged with a feminine sexuality often presented as exclusive to younger women.
The lighter moments of the play—the witty back-and-forth, the bawdy jokes—are wonderful and uncomplicated. The darker moments—sexual coercion, grief—are at times flattened into punchlines or glossed over, as in the original script. Moments of disquieting moral sacrifice elicit snickers rather than silence. Greene is right: we should re-examine old plays in the context of society today, even when it’s difficult. In works like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in which cruelty can be witty, confident, and well-dressed, the line between mirroring society and pardoning its shortcomings is razor-thin. The production doesn’t always succeed at reviving the more complex dynamics of the work, but for the moments it does, it’s well worth a watch.