A Taste of the Surreal: Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Pendragon Theatre
Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Pendragon Theatre, Review
“It’s not under my control,” repeats Le Vicomte de Valmont to a devastated, betrayed La Presidente de Tourvel. As Tourvel wails, the indomitable La Marquise de Merteuil sits upper stage right at her dressing table, still as a sculpture. “It’s not under my control,” Vicomte says again. From the audience, a woman lets out a capricious cackle. There in the intimate and creaking Pendragon Theatre, the center stage chandelier rotates slowly in a ghostly wind and it dawns on you: Theatre can be surreal.
In the 1780s, a man with a very long name (Pierre Ambroise Francois Choder Los de Laclos) had a very short career as a fiction writer. He wrote one book, called Les Liaisons Dangereuses, considered to be not only a masterful work, but exemplary of its genre, “an epistolary novel,” according to Christopher Hampton, who adapted it for the stage in the 1980s, two centuries later.
Mid-way into the first act, I leaned over to my date and whispered to her, “I have no idea what’s happening.” This admission on my part likely has to do with the accuracy with which the time period was captured. It has been said that an artist ought to be of his time, and certainly we have come to celebrate those works which fit this circumspection: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Steinbeck’s East of Eden, to name a couple. Los de Laclo’s work represents an era of loquaciousness and formality, and their counterpart in carnality. That I couldn’t quite follow every bit of the lilting, dripping, dervishes of dialog doesn’t mean that the story didn’t present itself. The emotions, expressions and body language were enough to convey the deceit and luridness of the tale; the performances were sterling.
Los de Laclos’s work was also adapted for the screen, made with Glenn Close, John Malcovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in the late 1980s as Dangerous Liaisons. The story was even re-imagined as Cruel Intentions with Ryan Phillipe as an incarnation of the pathologically unsentimental Vicomte, but it is this stage version which contains the true bitter essence of Los de Laclos’s work. Here, under the direction of Karen Lordi Kirkham, with hinted opulence from set designer Kent Streed, the pastel billows of Julia Ferreri’s costuming, the fovea-grabbing light design of Bonnie B. Brewer, the Pendragon Theatre presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses. And there I sit, a guy who grew up with Robocop and Predator among his favorite movies, Naked Lunch and The Stand his favorite books, listening to gossip from puffy-clothed bourgeoisie in 18th century France.
In order to truly appreciate theatre though, perhaps sometimes it helps to be removed from it, to come in without expectation. It doesn’t have to be emasculating (I still have my tattoos and scars intact), but it did require effort to follow the motives of the slippery characters. Easier, though, to understand the emotions of those victimized. Ginger Lee McDermott, playing the sought-after Tourvel, was particularly sympathetic. Her expressive eyes, a body language which conveyed the tensile, conflicted nature of her character lent to a convincing and compelling performance.
Equally impressive was Harrison Ewing in the diminutive but essential role of Azolan (who I took to be Vicomte’s version of a private investigator). Ewing plays the gem of a role with aplomb, his mouth forming the stuffy words of the era and class as though he were playing an instrument, eliciting laughs as he effortlessly handles the role with great and subtle humor.
Binnie Ritchie Holum, who, along with Harrison, has been a member of the Pendragon Company for years, stands out with her naturalistic portrayal of Madame de Rosemonde, acting perfectly at home in her character, offering her lines as if they truly occurred to her.
Susan Neal and Joe Guzmán handle the breadth of the two act play, and it is no easy weight to carry – they must munch elegantly through the oft-byzantine lines of dialog to do what storytelling in a play tends to do – to tell much more than show. They must inhabit their characters, while also providing the plot and pacing of the narrative as well as its tone and intrigue, and both actors are effective.
Tyler Nye is bright and crisp as Le Chevalier Danceny, hapless on the surface but boiling with capability beneath. The silent, transitional Major-domo adds to those moments of surreality with Brandon Patterson steering his wooden character around stage in the gloaming and saturated colors, murmuring guest announcements, making the beds after their sinful rumplings, and clearing away the tea china.
Makenzie Barmen, a student of Drama at SUNY Potsdam under Susan Neal and in her first season here, pierces as the vulnerable yet feisty Cecile, her passions unlocked by the fork-tongue Vicomte, and Donna Moschek (a former Potsdam student as well) brings vital life to a one-note character, the courtesan Emilie.
The play opens with Makenzie Barmen’s Cecile sitting in La Marquise’s salon with La Marquise and Madame Volanges, Cecile’s mother (played brightly and economically by Laura-Jean Swanson). As the lights come up, Cecile is staring off into space while Marquise and Volanges play cards and talk. That distant look from Cecile is a small but powerful bit of foreshadowing, and hints at the deeper currents of the play. Gossip and deceit on the surface, the story actually roils with life’s ether beneath. The more the characters disparage ideas of love, the more they weave the lies and betrayals, the more philosophy is revealed; the closer to love and truth they are. But, of course, the tragedy is, they will never know it.
What begins as the Marquis – upset that Cecile is betrothed to her ex-lover – prompting Vicomte to seduce her, and Vicomte’s co-occurring plan to seduce and betray the virtuous Tourvel conflates, ironically, with Vicomte experiencing something like love. In the end, though, it is not about redemption for the characters – this is no modern-day Hollywood where studies inform studios to present happy endings. This is the theatre, this is a novel written in the 18th century, when the benefactors of the journey’s wisdom were not the characters depicted, but the audiences who witnessed them.
You’ll find the Pendragon Theatre tucked away against a bosk of green trees where route 3 intersects with River Street in Saranac Lake. There, since 1980, Bob Pettee and his partner Susan Neal have been putting shows like this together.
The existence of the theatre is what Bob calls “an evolutionary process.” He points to the way the name, Pendragon, organically arose a year after they’d already been underway. (A production under Milk Wood had to do with the British Isle of Wales, where the name Pendragon means “Chief Leader of the British Tribes.”)
The theatre is funded in part by the New York State Council of the Arts, and also the NEA, providing a grant for the tour of a fall show. Mostly, though, the Pendragon owes itself to the “strong base of very generous individuals” who have supported it through the years, says Bob.
As ever, change is afoot, and times have been tough economically, so that groups like Pendragon must always be on the lookout for creative ways of raising funds. In the coming years, Bob predicts some kind of a transition, “getting some new boots on the ground,” he says. It’s a founder-driven organization, which has a mission, a vision, and ought to continue on that way after he and Susan have decided to take a little time for themselves.
For now, the theatre continues to operate under the mandate of variety – the spice of life – with shows as diverse as the The Mystery of Irma Vep, Stuart Little, and Sweeny Todd this summer, with The Mousetrap forthcoming.
Liaisons plays for one more weekend. Coming from a guy who still loves Robocop and Predator, this experience was one of a kind, and well worth it. Those moments of the surreal, the purity of emotion rising out of the labyrinthine dialog; there’s something about the theatre…hey, who knows. As Vicomte would say, perhaps, “It’s not under my control.”
For tickets and show times, visit www.pendragontheatre.org or call 518-891-1854.
–TJ Brearton is a Contributor to The Free George.
The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.
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