Two shows to start off my encounter with this year's Fringe Festival presented at least one of the polarities the festival offers: a local ensemble musical made from scratch out of deliberately offensive material contrasted with an out-of-town veteran of stage and screen in a one-actor play confronting mysteries of myth and history.
Both "de Sade" (Q Artistry) and '"Underneath the Lintel" (Pat O'Brien's Vanity Theatrics) are being presented at the Phoenix Theatre, on the Russell and Basile stages, respectively.
Pat O'Brien is spellbinding in Glen Berger's wide-ranging play recounting a cashiered librarian's quest to find the borrower of a book returned 123 years overdue. The librarian quickly draws us into his obsession; O'Brien made even the sadly heroic figure's muttered digressions fascinating. His voice ranging from a whisper to a roar, the actor darted about the stage, pulling one piece of evidence after another from a box, showing slides and playing bits of recorded music.
The all-consuming mystery has taken him around the world. He is simultaneously near-exhaustion and freshly energized — a parallel to the mythic figure he is certain must have borrowed the Baedeker now carrying an astronomical, irretrievable fine.
As trails that peter out accumulate, the librarian becomes all the more determined to extract lessons from the minutiae he sets before us. It's impossible not to become nearly as wound up as he is by the search. His pettiness and near-madness become heart-wrenching and oddly endearing, because the more he looks into the vagaries of time and oblivion, the more he feels caught up in the same pathos of evanescence as all living creatures. Humans carry the burden of being most aware of this state of affairs, which only quests like the librarian's seem to ennoble.
At the ignoble end of the spectrum of human questing is the Marquis de Sade, the dissolute connoisseur of sexual license and pain. He is presented in a series of tableaux, covering a multitude of styles from drawing-room comedy to obscene flip-books, larded with songs that put genitalia on the brain's level as organs governing human behavior.
As far as the body parts in charge are concerned, I will offer comment here only on Ben Asaykwee's brain. "De Sade" is his brainchild, delivered with multiple spankings and other physical abuse by a hardworking troupe representing Q Artistry. The Asaykwee brain has come to grips with the licentious de Sade's turgid and appalling fiction, decking out the French nobleman's flamboyant depravity in songs and dialogue that are too overstuffed for their own good (as well as sometimes buried under the recorded accompaniments).
The opening performance certainly showed signs of needing more polish, but even allowing for a show free of any stumbles, there may be too much wit and verbal frippery packed into "de Sade" to give more than sporadic insight into the Sadean world. Attention lavished on costumes and choreography pays off in terms of style, but can't compensate enough for the text's density.
Much of the show is preoccupied with explicit, lewd fun; the pain at the heart of the title figure's values takes a while to come into focus. Near the end, when footlights come up spectrally on the cast as they gather at the front of the stage and delineate the torture intended for a proper aristocratic mother, we are finally immersed in what makes de Sade permanently beyond the pale.
Freedom is the "philosophical" message, of course. And though the evidence of "de Sade" is mixed, it's likely Asaykwee is shrewd enough to see the Sadean revolution as the sham most revolutions turn out to be.