Juego de Peligro is an adaptation of the 18th century novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the more famous version of which is the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons. The original text is transposed to late 19th century Manila and reveals it as a time of decadence, one premised on a class structure bound to conservatism and gender roles, love and desire.
It is a world of appearances, where the elite speak of reputation and expectation even as they put these into question, knowingly and otherwise, behind closed doors. Where it is in the enclosed spaces—the home, the room—that the negotiations between man and woman take place, the outside space is navigated by the indio whose predisposition to curiosity and tsismis is used by the elite as tool for deception.
That this time was imagined to cradle this story of love, desire and deception, with the decadence of beautifully made clothes and properly coiffed hair, and a mass uprising that’s imminent, is this adaptation’s gift.
Play as performance
Señora Margarita (Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino) and Señor Vicente (Arnold Reyes) are players of a game premised on their desire for each other. Vicente is the playboy who sees women as mere conquests, and has his very own whore Elena (Lhorvie Nuevo). His eyes are set on Teresa (LJ Reyes) who is married and religious, which makes her a challenge. Margarita meanwhile is seeking revenge: an ex-lover is marrying her virgin goddaughter Cecilia (Adrienne Vergara) straight out of the convent. Margarita wants to make sure that Cecilia’s reputation will cease to be virginal by the time she marries.
The game unravels quickly and laughably, taking unexpected turns. Margarita and Vicente are playing with humans after all, but also they are playing with conservatism rendered unstable by this period of decadence and worldliness. The manipulative Margarita has Cecilia’s mother Señora Violeta in the palm of her hand; the playboy Vicente knew exactly how to get into the good graces of his aunt Señora Remedios, who hosts Teresa at her home.
The game’s success after all is premised on trust and the players must perform decency and conservatism to the hilt to get what they want. Winner takes all. Or does s/he?
Through the body
The task of portraying women into sexualized beings is always a dangerous thing, especially for women who are taught to repress their desires. But the women here all have spines, even as they might have been premised on stereotypes. There are no doormats here.
And so the whore speaks and laughs, her back straight, her body her weapon. Nuevo plays this ably, even more so in Act 2 when she demands to see Vicente’s “other” woman. The mother meanwhile is at a loss about how to handle her convent-bred daughter, the comedy in her confusion done by Pareño with the most succinct of comedic timings. The virgin is a wonderful foil to the propriety of the mother, where Cecilia’s distress is about the liberation of her body, and the realization that she can have her cake and eat it, too. This character’s believability is Vergara’s doing, where self-realization is bound to the most simple of things: the shift from virginal giggles to guffaws of laughter, from loving looks to the gaze of desire.
Señora Remedios is mater dolorosa defined, her stereotype bound to charity and piety, but her wisdom revealed to be far beyond what is expected. That it is her voice that you hear for most of Act 2 is because of Lara, who drops that line about the difference between men and women with nary conceit, and every bit of truth. The dutiful wife in Teresa, who loyally waits for her husband even as her quiet belies her discontent, unravels with the decision to love. Reyes reveals this to be an empowering decision, where the freedom to love is also about deciding on her body.
Power and undoing
Which is where we find that between Margarita and Vicente, one’s undoing can be about rules that change, games that happen longer than expected. When the player’s being played, and manipulator becomes manipulated, the stage is set for endgame.Or is it?
That one must end with uncertainty is Juego de Peligro’s point. Because there is Vicente, who evolves from playboy to real man, standing up for love, waging war because of it, even as he is weakened by it. Reyes’s wonderfully sexy swagger is difficult to forget here, especially because he allows for that to evolve into dropped shoulders of defeat, a voice faltering between power and surrender. His was a Vicente that was perfect counterpoint to Centenera-Buencamino’s Margarita, who was master manipulator, learned and knowledgeable in the ways of the world, but also driven by the refusal to be defeated. Centenera navigates this character with a deft hand, refusing to make it into mere antagonist, and coloring it with every hue of feminist ahead of its time, her final unraveling in the privacy of her bedroom included.
But probably the most poignant moment is one that happens in the public space, where Vicente’s final hours are bound to the indio (Jonathan Tadioan) who is revealed to care for him and carries him off the stage. Symbolic of what is about to come for nation, telling of what has become of us since. A reminder of how class and power, gender and sexuality, remain as valid discussions in the present, and sadly in the future.
Let the games begin.
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Juego de Peligro is a Tanghalang Pilipino production, adaptation by Elmer Gatchalian, directed by Tuxqs Rutaquio. Costume design by James Reyes, lighting design by John Batalla, set design by Tuxqs Rutaquio. It runs until March 8.