Update: Subsequent to this review being published, the producers have used risers to adjust the audience's seating to improve the view.
In presenting "Quills," a fictionalized account of the last days of the Marquis de Sade, producers Holly Frost and Samuel Butcher have taken great care with setting the scene.
The production, which includes nudity, violence and erotic passages — all the things one would expect in a play about the man who gave us the term "sadism" — takes place at The Woodshed, a private club for adults who enjoy playing with whips, chains and other forms of bondage.
(Note to the skeptical: The venue is perfectly respectable with good parking and a friendly staff. Have no qualms about attending, based on location.)
The stage itself is surrounded by overlapping red and black curtains, reminiscent of some dark circus, heightening the theatricality of Doug Wright's play. Excellent sound effects — dripping water, maniacal laughter — add to the off-kilter ambience.
But with the care in atmosphere, some basics are allowed to slide: Under Butcher's direction, pacing and staging both suffer as the story plays out.
In Wright's imagined version of events, Dr. Royer-Collard and the Abbe de Coulmier try to prevent the Marquis from writing his erotica. The doctor, obsessed with his own philandering wife, is running the asylum in which the Marquis lives. The Abbe, a gentle soul, is in charge of the Marquis' care.
The one person who yearns to read the Marquis' works: A poor, young asylum laundress named Madeleine.
As the play unfolds, the Abbe loses sight of his own nature in his zeal to stop the Marquis' creativity. And playwright Wright raises all sorts of issues: freedom, creativity, censorship, challenging the status quo.
Most in the cast admirably convey the stifling nature of the time (the Marquis died in 1814). The period costuming by Ashleigh Ann Gardner helps in that regard. But so does the stylized acting adopted by the performers. In combination with Wright's words, you can almost see the hypocrisy oozing from every pore.
Stephen Lima, as Dr. Royer-Collard, drips haughtiness and insincerity; Keith Kurlin is spot-on as Prioux, an immoral dandy; Marion Marsh Skinner is a force of nature as the Marquis' wife, shockingly blasé in her goal: not to help her husband but to return to her own glorious place in society life.
Only Kimberly Luffman fails to find a convincing persona in laundry wretch Madeleine; she's too modern, too bright and therefore jarring in comparison to those around her. That's especially problematic as simple Madeleine should draw sympathy from the audience; instead, more of the audience's compassion is diverted to the Abbe. In the role, Bruce Ryan Costella seems insignificant at first; when the Abbe finds his voice, so does Costella.
Brett Carson, who spends half the play naked, makes the Marquis de Sade a rotund jester, full of impish life and spirit. No dark, shadowy pervert here; that makes him more interesting to watch and more deserving of sympathy.
Unfortunately, Butcher has chosen to stage many of Carson's climactic scenes upstage on the floor. This may suit his vision, as the Marquis sinks lower and lower, or indeed be literal — the Marquis' limbs are removed — but it doesn't suit the space well. With unraked seats, those in the back, especially in house left, have great difficulty keeping the action in view.
And the pace of the second act, already overwritten by Wright, begins to lag. Instead of picking up steam as its climax approaches, the play begins to sink under its own weight. Strangely, the more grotesque the indignities heaped upon the Marquis, the less dramatic the result.
Still, maybe that's the ultimate message of this highly thought-provoking play: At the end of the day, when the violence and the sex are set aside, what's left is just words on a page brought to life by actors and stage crew. Just as at the end of the day, the Marquis de Sade's unconventional writing was just words brought to life in readers' imaginations.
It's always worth remembering that no matter how much society or government wants to silence human thought, the creative spirit will endure. And that message comes through loud and clear in this production evocative of the Marquis himself: Flawed, yet stylish and intriguing.
• What: A play by Doug Wright, produced by Holly Frost and Samuel Butcher
• When: Two more performances, 9 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, Aug. 15-16
• Where: The Woodshed, 6431 Milner Blvd., Orlando
• Tickets: $10, at the door
• More info: quills.samuelbutcher.net