"In the end," senior Anya Firestone announces as the Marquise de Merteuil, "I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die."
Clothed in an intricate red-and-gold dress that ends well above her knees and draped across a plush chaise longue, Merteuil is just one of several French aristocrats in Generic Theatre Company's production of "Dangerous Liaisons." Bored with her privileged life, Merteuil enlists former lover Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont in exacting revenge on her rivals and corrupting Cécile de Volanges, an innocent acquaintance who has fallen in love with her music tutor.
The play, which runs this weekend in the Lisner Downstage, is based on the 18th-century novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." It has spawned multiple adaptations, including an Oscar-winning movie of the same name and the film "Cruel Intentions," a popular modern-day version set in Manhattan.
Despite that, director Doug Brundage said he avoided watching other films or versions of the play so the production would reflect his own ideas. He has stayed true to the play's original setting, while providing updated innovations, including modern music and provocative costumes he describes as "sexy Marie Antoinette."
"It's really interesting to explore the immorality of not-so-average people. A lot of plays are about the everyday guy or the struggling martyr, which is fine, but I like delving into the real upper-crust, decadent class of society - especially because this takes place right before the French Revolution," Brundage said.
For Firestone, a deep connection with the source material led her to audition for Merteuil, one of the two lead roles.
"This real, visceral theater is what I enjoy... when you perform in a farce comedy, there's only so much you can do. But this play requires analysis. All these pieces, these studies that I was doing in Paris and in my classes, started reappearing when I started to prepare for this play," she said.
Firestone added that playing Merteuil is challenging due to the character's manipulative nature; she has a different "mask" or personality for each person with whom she interacts. Nonetheless, Firestone said the role was "one I've never been more happy to undertake."
Senior Matt Casale plays Valmont, a young noble and wealthy playboy who has taken as many lovers as Merteuil.
"The challenging thing about Valmont is that he does so many terrible things, but at the same time has moments of true sincerity," Casale said. "It's hard to balance the two."
Casale said he felt a connection to the characters, despite the shallow nature of their actions.
"It is at the same time their life," he said. "It's so real and important to them, that it makes it interesting to watch."
Following the strict social etiquette of the time, the characters are often ostensibly civil with one another, thinly masking the true meaning behind their polite words. At the same time, the conversations between Valmont and Merteuil are charged with sexual tension, and the pair's constant witty remarks provide some dark comic relief. Although Valmont and Merteuil initially appear cool and calculating, the games they play with other people's hearts lead to a highly emotional climax.
"I think people will already be moved by the material," Brundage said. "I just want to make it fun and enticing, so people can understand why it's moving."
If that isn't enough, Brundage summed up the reasons to see his play as thus: "sex, money, power games, vanity, tits, ass, gold, pink, velvet, chandeliers - and there's a sword fight."