Satire is a noble pursuit, but it can also be used as an excuse. Regardless of what a would-be satirist puts onstage, if you dislike it, he can say that your negative reaction is the point. “I found it tasteless,” you might say, and the satirist can say, “it’s a satire on tastelessness.”
King’s Players remount of In the Company of de Sade aspires to tastelessness as a form of satire. The production proudly declares itself for “Mature Audiences Only!” A mature audience, in DC, does not find graphic sexual dialogue, nudity, or vulgar words to be tasteless in and of themselves. But a mature audience does find it tasteless to see actors directed to these ends for no good reason at all.
It’s disappointing, because there’s plenty of promise in the plot, a meta-tale of a theater company’s Fringe production of the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom and the controversy arising from their decision to perform it with unsimulated sex onstage. We never see the actual nude play-within-the-play, but we do see it rehearsed and the actors debate whether their careers will be ruined and whether theatre is meaningful. There’s a lot of heart in the questions raised, which anyone who has worked in the arts will recognize, but these heartfelt matters are swamped by the stabs at satire.
In the Company of de Sade
closes July 23, 2017
Details and tickets
Timothy R. King’s script pokes at such DC theatre touchstones as the financial realities of Fringe and the all-nude Macbeth of several years ago, but the barbs are trite and the targets (including theatre critics) too easy. Much worse, King’s direction calls for one actress to be briefly nude, two to do an extraneous costume change (down to their underwear) onstage, and one later to wear a dress so flimsy she literally spends several minutes distractedly clutching at it to keep herself covered. Perhaps I simply don’t get the satirical thrust of exploiting the actresses as some comment on exploitation in the theatre. But I know I found myself more upset on the actress’ behalf than anything. Satirical meta-exploitation is still exploitation, and a mature audience will not be impressed.
It wouldn’t be as bad, perhaps, if it was more equal-opportunity. For a play that offers an accurate description of pansexuality and has a subplot about a male actor’s homophobia, it’s odd that none of the men kiss each other – just women and women, or men and women. Nor do any of the men enter any state of undress, nor do the two older actresses – just the two college-age cast members.
This cast is all talented, and they draw many laughs from their portrayals of bad actors deadpanning hypersexual de Sade dialogue. But aside from Brittany Morgan as a conflicted actor and Nikki Summons as the self-righteous director, none are given much to do. Alex Nelson, as the in-play stage manager, somehow manages to wring a realistic and funny character from his smallish part, and heaps of praise are due to the actual stage manager Parker Thomson, for filling in two of the roles on opening night due to outside circumstances. (It seems likely the two absent actors, MarQuis Fair and Mitch Irzisnki, will be at the rest of the performances.) And the scene change music, from Creative Commons composer Kevin MacLeod of incompetech.com, is moody and toe-tapping.
These pleasures, however, cannot – for an audience I once again assume to be mature – make up for the awkwardness of the attempted satire and the boredom of waiting to see whether the actors will get more genuine moments between their long stretches of “shocking” sex talk. They deserve better.
In the Company of de Sade by Timothy R. King . Directed by Timothy R. King . Featuring Shemika Demouchet Berry, MarQuis Fair, Jane Gibbins-Harding, Mitch Irzinski, Brittany Morgan, Alex Nelson, Michael Santos Sandoval, and Nikki Summons . Stage Manager: Parker Thomson . Music: Kevin MacLeod . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.