the marquise of O- (the red light district) 2015 SummerWorks Review

photo by rockitpromo

the marquise of O- (the red light district), adapted and directed by Lauren Gillis and Ted Witzel for SummerWorks, is loosely based on an 1808 short story by Heinrich von Kleist, filtered through Kant’s ideas on reality and knowledge, and the remix culture of Reddit.

This story, about a widow whose life and honour are saved from an encroaching army by an instantly-besotted count, and who later mysteriously falls pregnant, is both devotedly retold and revised into a modern exploration of how we treat rape, and how belief and rationalization can be tenuous and dangerous things.

The show begins by combining presentational period style with projections, and continues to exist, self-consciously, with one foot in each time period. The projections show the actors getting ready backstage, then display and record reaction shots.

The characters tell the story, layering on other people and perceptions as needed, such as the father’s (Richard Partington) confused doctor or the brother’s (G. Kyle Shields) intrusive, salad-tong-wielding midwife. The message becomes clear: what does it take for even your supposedly loving family to believe you?

Truncating the title comes from the redacting of place or family names in the style of 19th century literature. If the characters forget the deletion, they get bleeped out, a joke that plays to diminishing returns until it links the past’s attempt at discretion with the present’s obsession with “doxxing”.

The production acknowledges that the resolution of the tale seems painfully obvious, but the show isn’t really about the revelation of the father. It’s the deconstruction of the story and the questions it creates as the actors pull it backwards and forwards that count. That it could work out so neatly makes the cracks essential.

There is standout physical work from Kaleb Alexander as the count, and emotional work from Rong Fu as the marquise, whose speeches, including one about about the potential in single motherhood, are quietly moving. The importance of perception is underscored in a great comic scene where the romantic, rose-tinted pronouncements and observations of the count, formal as his costume, are punctured by our view of the marquise messily eating a bag of chips.

The set, three flats with magnetized doors, is simple but versatile. Scene changes and speeches are sometimes chaotic, but overall it’s a strong, thoughtful show with committed, keyed-up performances. However, it’s when things slow and breathe that the discussion gets started.

It’s fitting that one of the only props is a mattress that gets dragged around the stage in a similar manner to a Columbia student’s protest against the way the school dealt with her rape allegations over the past year. Leopardo the servant (Tyler Hagemann) is the hardest-working stagehand/horse-man in show business, who is given both the thankless tasks of manipulating mattresses and explaining Kant.

The show drags when it slips into philosophical didacticism (and a microphone distorts already difficult concepts), but soon achieves a more effective balance of thought and spectacle.

The ending is an unsettling one; it’s up to you to decide whether it’s happy or not. This is, after all, presented by “the red light district’s unresolved moral ambiguities.” We have to ask, how do we tell if someone is guilty or innocent, good or bad? Can people change? Though there is a resolution, there are no easy answers here, in either simple condemnation or forgiveness.


the marquise of O- plays at the Factory Theatre Mainspace, 125 Bathurst Street.

Show times:

  • Saturday August 8th 9:00 PM
  • Monday August 10th 4:15 PM
  • Tuesday August 11th 6:30 PM
  • Friday August 14th 4:15 PM
  • Saturday August 15th 7:00 PM
  • Sunday August 16th 1:45 PM

Individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Live Art Series tickets are free – $20. Tickets are available online, by phone at 888-328-8384, Monday – Friday 8:30am-5pm, in person at the SummerWorks Info Booth – located at SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street). Open August 4-16 from 10am-7pm (Advance tickets are $15 + service fee).

Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows.

Warnings: This show includes stage fog and gunshots.

Photo of Rong Fu by rockitpromo