The Marquis de Sade may have been many things, but “modest” certainly wasn’t one of them. Like the infamous French libertine and playwright whom they evoke, the cast and crew of In The Company of de sade pull no punches and leave no taboo unturned as they present a bawdy, sex crazed, and ultimately moving love letter to the boundary-erasing, creative power of theater.
The story centers on a DC theater group staging De Sade’s controversial (what else is new?) Philosophy in the Bedroom, a dramatic and graphic examination of the clash between society’s sexual mores and man’s innate desires. The meta-play’s director Francoise (Sara Joy Lebowitz) is set on reproducing every detail of the Marquis’ lurid original production, down to the gritty, explicit details. Right out of the gate, she has auditionees detail their best sexual experience to earn a spot in the cast, and the descriptions alone could curl the hair of the most open minded audience member.
As the first scene unfolds, the show seems perilously intent on mining forbidden fruit for cheap laughs and titillation, which usually works for a while before wearing thin. Thankfully, the action soon shifts away from awkward sexual one-upmanship and onto a mature, hilarious dialogue between creative types from wide-ranging backgrounds. During the intense rehearsal process, the director and her actors explore and break down their own inhibitions as they try to create memorable art and reaffirm their dedication to live theater, all in the face of violent opposition.
Behind the initial “Can’t we all just get freaky?” façade, author/director Timothy R. King crafts a wry meta-commentary on various acting tropes and the present and future of theater in DC, drawn from his own DC Fringe and assorted theatrical experience. The actors hold forth on Stanislavski, Shakespeare, crappy day jobs, and vanishingly small performance stipends, as well as why acting matters to them. At certain times the message becomes a bit ham-fisted, but for the most part it’s an eloquent defense of live theater.
As passionate director Françoise, Lebowitz uses her creative conviction and seductive charm to pull her actors out of their comfort zones. Lebowitz is a funny, authoritative presence who makes you believe in what she is trying to accomplish, even if you disagree with the source material. Meanwhile, Anthony Carchietta offers a nuanced portrayal of Marlon, a sensitive method actor who loses himself in De Sade’s crazy world. Credit also goes Daniel Rovin, who contributes welcome comic relief as Dave, a hyper masculine young actor grappling with his character’s flexible romantic leanings.
In the Company of de sade definitely pushes the envelope as far as it will go, without resorting to actual nudity. The jokes are both graphic and blisteringly honest, and it took the opening night crowd quite a while to warm up to the unabashed humor. However, what begins like an awkward “Craziest Sex” feature in Cosmopolitan ends as a portrait of a trusting, creative ensemble exploring the boundaries of art together.
It may not be for everyone, but any audience member who has ever shared in the thankless toil, fear, pride, and camaraderie of theater, music, or other creative endeavors will find much to enjoy in King’s Players’ edgy production.
In the Company of de sade has 5 performances, ending July 29th, at Redrum at Fort Fringe, 612 L St NW, Washington, DC 20001.
Ben rates this 4 out of a possible 5.