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'Dangerous Liaisons' Lets UCI Students In on the Lying Game

April 22, 1993|M. E. WARREN | M.E. Warren is a free-lance writer who regularly covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition.

Onstage at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, it is 18th-Century France under the reign of Louis XVI, that period of excessive opulence just before the Reign of Terror. Aristocrats dressed in elaborate finery and engaged in equally intricate intrigues.

Marie Antoinette had, no doubt, a squad of handmaidens to help her dress. The students who are appearing in UC Irvine's production of "Dangerous Liaisons" have a system of their own. Backstage, the "corset line" forms at 6:20 p.m.: A bevy of actresses line up to cinch one another in.

Then there are wigs to be donned, as well as the high-heeled shoes that both men and women wear, and full petticoats and fine fabrics that dare an actor to indulge in a final slurp of coffee before "places" is called.

"It's strict costuming," concedes Robert Cohen, UCI professor of drama, citing one of the reasons the department chose this play. Another persuasive factor was the challenge of Christopher Hampton's script: "It's a brilliant play with brilliant language, linguistically complicated. And we are a school of training."

Cohen is directing this production, the first non-musical produced by the university on the big Barclay stage. The cast is drawn primarily from UCI's three-year graduate program, which includes more than 70 students, about half of whom are female. And, Cohen noted, "this play has wonderful roles for women." (Of nine characters in the play, six are female.)

Laclos Chloderlos de Laclos, the author of the novel on which the play is based, "was a very early feminist," Cohen said. "His other published works include an essay on the education of women. I'm not sure contemporary feminists would call him a feminist, but (in those days) women could only advance themselves through wiliness and sexual manipulation.

"I like this play very much," he said. "Hampton is a fine, fine English playwright. You would never know (this play) is an adaptation. He's done a masterful job of extracting the story from the novel."

Written in the shadow of the impending French Revolution, "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" was one of the first epistolary novels, that is, written in the form of letters. Upon publication, it created a scandal played out in the press as various items appeared speculating on the true identities of Laclos' characters.

In an age of AIDS and youth worship, the concept of dangerous liaisons is reinvested with meaning. "The ideas, the ironies interest me," Cohen said. "One of the themes is that love and sex are weapons . . . dangerous. We live in a new era in which love and sex have become dangerous. Another theme is that (principal characters) Merteuil and Valmont are slightly over the hill."

Although Cohen has never directed the play, he is no stranger to it, having reviewed the Broadway production in 1988 for Plays International, a London publication. Cohen reviews regularly and writes long essays annually on "The Year in Drama" for Contemporary Literary Criticism.

"Unless I do a completely original play, it's hard for me to (direct) a play I haven't seen," he admitted. "But the moment you begin rehearsals, all previous productions are wiped out of your mind. You direct a play that is about the people you're working with as much as about the characters."

He said he doesn't "have that strong a vision" of the original Broadway production anymore, but one impression that has stayed with him is that the end of the play--where Hampton "suggests that the Revolution is about to overtake these people"--was too weakly staged in New York.

"It was just a shadow on a curtain. I spoke to friends who had seen that production, and they hadn't gotten it at all. We've made it a little more obvious."

In the novel, Merteuil ends up alone in the country, ostracized by society, disfigured and blind. Laclos couldn't have known, writing when he did, but "what really happened to these people is that they were beheaded in the Revolution."

Unless the corsets killed them first.

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