Think of the two main characters in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" as chess players on a grand stage — but the chess pieces are real people.
So says Karan Johnson, who directs the new Good Company Players production, now in its opening weekend at the 2nd Space Theatre.
"It's about game-playing where the stakes could not be higher: the lives and loves of other people," Johnson says. "It is the story of two devious people who engage in a game of revenge, manipulation and degradation, with sex as the main weapon."
We caught up with Johnson via email to talk about the production.
Question: What is the storyline?
Answer: Set in France just before the revolution, amid the decadence of the aristocracy, it tells of Madame de Merteuil, who wants her ex-lover, the Comte de Valmont, to seduce a young girl to get revenge on another former lover who dumped her. Valmont, on the other hand, is intent on seducing the virtuous (and married) Madame de Tourvel just to prove he can.
Many people remember the 1988 movie starring Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer (and also the 1999 film "Cruel Intentions" starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe). What is your take on those two films?
I like the 1988 movie a lot and thought Glenn Close was a wonderful Merteuil. And of course, a movie offers opportunities for opening up a play with wonderful location shots. "Cruel Intentions" was a nice attempt but had sort of a "Bugsy Malone vibe" to it for me … teens playing at grown-up games. I also liked the 1989 Milos Forman film "Valmont," which was based on the book, not the play, and starred Colin Firth and Annette Bening. Very different take on the characters, but just as compelling. It's interesting to me that all three films show Merteuil getting her "comeuppance," but the play is more ambiguous and the ending leaves more to the audience's imagination.
What do you think is the best way to make deceit and revenge resonate with audiences?
Even though these two characters are manipulative and devious, the audience has to be able to relate to them in some way, if only to deplore their actions. I think we have to establish the underlying relationship between Valmont and Merteuil, and the fact that under all the game playing and sexual politics, they do care for each other. I continually go back to the idea of game-playing — the two of them circle each other like the predators they are, face off, and vie for the upper hand all through the story. We also have tried to find what humor there is in the situations they create.
Tell us about your cast.
I am so lucky in the three leading actors I cast. I was looking for experienced performers able to handle the language and make it not only understandable, but also to make it sound contemporary enough so our audiences could relate to the story.
The leading role of Valmont (he is in every scene but the last one) is a difficult one that needed an actor able to handle the language and the physical aspects of the character. Fortunately, it is a role Terry Lewis has always wanted to play. I have loved Haley White's work in other productions, like "Gross Indecency," and knew she could provide the layers that Madame de Merteuil has to have. And Kaichen MacRae is finally getting a chance to show GCP audiences what she can do as the wronged Mme. de Tourvel … they will love her. I am very proud of the whole cast and how hard they have worked on this demanding play.
I hope potential audiences won't be put off by the foreign-sounding title and think this is some boring history play — it's got sex, swordplay, humor, beautiful people and two cunning, conniving, and charming lead characters.
"Les Liaisons Dangereuses," through June 15, 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave. www.gcplayers.com, (559) 266-0660. $18, $15 students and seniors.
For an extended interview, go to www.fresnobeehive.com.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter.