Ann Lemons Pollack – St. Louis Eats and Drinks, August 4, 2014
“Quills” is about the Marquis de Sade. And if there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know who he is, sufficient to say that he’s the person who gave his name to sadism. A film with Geoffrey Rush and based on this play came out several years ago but – I am told – is considerably different.
De Sade is held in what at the time would have been called an insane asylum or the French equivalent. It’s the very early 1800’s and de Sade’s behavior, both on and off the printed page, has finally permanently put him away. But he lives a comfortable life, allowed furnishings, his own clothes and, oh, yes, paper, ink and quill pens. He’s writing, writing, ahem, like mad, living his fantasy life vicariously. The sizzling stories are smuggled out by a young seamstress, but all is discovered when his cell is searched after a complaint – and some judiciously placed money – from the marquis’ long-suffering wife.
The new head of the hospital orders his second in command, a priest with the newer theories of treating the patients with kindness, to stop the writing. And the battle begins.
This play is often viewed as a question of artistic freedom. We’re not talking about Nelson Mandela writing from Robbin Island or Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul On Ice” here, though. There are, early on quotations from what he’s writing, and they are deeply, frighteningly lewd. (The easily disturbed may be very uncomfortable.) Is this shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater?
But what comes far more immediately to my mind is a portrait of compulsive disorder and how it can destroy a person. Ted Gregory, not seen on local stages for many years, hypnotizing as a snake, stalks and seduces and spews his mania in all sorts of ways. One can argue there’s a whole lotta flouncing going on, but French aristocrats seem not to have been known for their rugged manliness – despite all those Scots visiting the French court pre-revolution. It’s a gripping performance.
The administration of the asylum is in a power struggle over the best way to cure their residents. The old style, advocated by the new boss, Doctor Royer-Collard, David Wassilak, is physical punishment, yea, torture – the rack will stretch those delusions out of them, right? Antonio Rodriguez, as the Abbe de Coulmier, second in command and the guy who seems to do all the actual work, has put into place more humane methods scorned by the medical establishment. Wassilak, cold as ice but secretly uxorious, is in danger of losing his job because of the marquis’ stories becoming public. Rodriguez’ priest, a man in very strong control of himself (although we see glimpses of rather human impulses), does as he’s ordered but not without arguments. The two men are each as proper and reserved as their antagonist is raucous and inflammatory. Excellent work by both actors.
Kudos, too, to Stacie Knock playing the marquis’ wife, who has gone back to her, uh, maiden name, and Caitlin Mickey as the seamstress and, briefly, as the doctor’s wife. That wife, by the way, is having a lovely new chateau built for her by her desperate husband, and there’s this architect, played by Charlie Barron…but that’s another story line. Great costumes, including a spectacular decolletage, from Cyndi Lohrmann, and a very nice set from Dunsi Dai.
The Doug Wright script under the watchful eye of director Brooke Edwards can be, despite the subject matter, quite funny, ranging from broad to sly. At one point the abbe says to the doctor, “It’s bedlam out there.” The word bedlam is the London mispronunciation of Bethlem Royal Hospital, an asylum where on Sundays, the curious would pay a small fee to enter and be amused by the poor souls. An inside gag, it slips by unnoticed. The script lags a bit in the late second act, but for the most part keeps us drawn in, far in. De Sade’s anticlericalism does strike a very contemporary note, by the way.
Not for the easily or even semi-easily offended, but very worthwhile theater.