Andrea Torrence – St. Louis Theatre Snob, August 4, 2014
Playwright Doug Wright, whose works include “I Am My Own Wife“, “Grey Gardens” and “Hands on a Hardbody“, offered audiences a fictionalized depiction of the Marquis de Sade’s last years in Charenton, an asylum for the insane outside of Paris, in his 1995 debut of “Quills“. It’s true that Sade — his name coining the term “sadism”, spent over 2 dozen years of his life in prison for literary works deemed too carnal, violent, blasphemous and politically subversive. Wright’s play takes Sade’s unrelenting creative spirit as inspiration to look deeper into morality and censorship — all framed inside a salaciously insightful comedy with sharp dialogue, masterfully directed here by Brooke Edwards with robust performances and stylish creative contributions.
Dr. Royer-Collard (David Wassilak), the newly assigned chief administrator at the asylum, is determined to raise the standards at Charenton, and the Marquis (Ted Gregory) is proving to be a challenge. Despite being imprisoned there, the Marquis has managed to continue to produce a prolific amount of material from within its walls. Sade’s wife, Renée Pélagie (Stacie Knock), wants to shut him down, too. She’s tired of being subjected to ridicule and scorn (a hilarious list) from the Parisian elite for her husband’s depravity. The asylum director, Abbe de Coulmier (Antonio Rodriguez), welcomes the challenge of the Marquis. Though he’s just as disgusted by his pornography, he prefers the therapeutic practices of music and painting to the doctor’s preference for thumbscrews and the rack. Pélagie and the doctor strike common ground, and he agrees to quiet Sade’s quill, while she agrees to provide funds for the asylum, though Royer-Collard takes a share of these funds to appease his unfaithful wife by building her a magnificent chateau.
Undaunted by de Coulmier’s attempt to keep him from writing, Sade’s scandalous stories continue to trickle out to the public. They’re being distributed by a young laundress named Madeleine Leclerc (Caitlin Mickey), who likes to read the stories to her blind mother, and trades kisses for pages with Sade. His will to create continues even after de Coulmier strips his cell bare, and their sparring on issues of “morality as a convenience” eventually forces de Coulmier to take more drastic measures at the doctor’s request.
Gregory’s dynamic Marquis de Sade recites his dark debauchery with unabashed glee and hurls a variety of terms of endearment to his captors with an increasing bitterness. Great performance. Knock’s raspy-voiced melodramatics as Renée Pélagie set the comedic tone of the play, giving life to Wright’s marvelous passages. Rodriguez changes the most during the course of “Quills” as the genial but conflicted Abbe de Coulmier, becoming caught up in Sade’s savage tales himself. His lively exchanges with Gregory are among the most intriguing. Wassilak’s self-serving Dr. Royer-Collard is arrogant, but desperate to keep his wife happy, and Charlie Barron adds a nice dash of comic relief as the foppish architect Monsieur Prouix, along with his role as one of the resident lunatics. Mickey also charms, pulling her weight in dual roles as the innocent Madeleine and the doctor’s philandering wife, Madame Royer-Collard.
Dunsi Dai’s scenic design of dark concrete is appropriately sparse and nicely appointed, and from the harpsichord music that greets you to the sounds of the inmates relaying Sade’s latest work, Amanda Werre’s sound design is subtle but effective. Maureen Berry’s lighting design includes a projection of lines of manuscript and follows the action with low pools of light, and Cyndi Lohrmann’s costume design informs the characters handsomely.
This St. Louis premiere illustrates how the issues involving creative freedoms and the shifting parameters of morality are as relevant today as they were in the 1800’s with a well-executed production, sure to entertain to its eerily absurd payoff. It’s running at the JCC until the 17th. Don’t miss this one.