Newspaper Review

Lloyd Rose – The Washington Post, 1996

Woolly Mammoth’s Sadistic Pleasure

Intellectually thin but wrathfully, gluttonously — almost sinfully — theatrical, “Quills“, which opened Saturday at Woolly Mammoth, is perhaps that eccentric company’s most sensational and perverse success yet.

Doug Wright’s play is a gothic burlesque about the battle of wills between the Marquis de Sade (Floyd King) and the Abbe de Coulmier (Steven Dawn), one of his jailers at the insane asylum of Charenton. It’s been directed to a near-excruciating pitch of glee by Howard Shalwitz, who steered the play to three Obies when he directed its premiere in New York last year. With King giving a barnstorming performance and Dawn flying kamikaze, the production goes over the top and keeps right on going — a delectable, seductive horror cartoon.

De Sade was in Charenton (he had been impudent enough to dedicate one of his pornographic epics to Napoleon) and he did have a liberal-minded jailer named de Coulmier (who allowed him to stage plays, and thus incubated another modern theatrical spook show, “Marat/Sade“). But Wright’s play is a fantasy. Or a nightmare. Or a mix of a bad trip and the DTs. Take your pick.

It begins as Charenton gets a new chief physician, Dr. Royer-Collard (Paul Morella), who, urged on by the marquis’s socially ambitious wife (Kerry Waters), decides the old reprobate can be brought to heel and made to stop scribbling those naughty tomes. The chief has seriously misjudged his opponent.

Poor de Coulmier, who believes in treating the patients gently, is Royer-Collard’s hatchet man — a role for which he is, to put it as charitably as possible, ill suited. Rigidly, almost perkily upright in his black cleric’s garb, Dawn satirizes the abbe’s decency while managing to respect the character’s innocence. This kindly, well-meaning man is a mere mouse to the clawed marquis. Smiling his Cheshire Cat smile, King’s de Sade toys with de Coulmier with a disturbingly appropriate mixture of cruelty and tenderness.

The clash of these two characters, particularly in the hands of these two actors, guarantees theatrical fireworks, and indeed, when they face each other in the marquis’s dank dungeon, things spark and explode and spin off in all directions. The result is delicious. It’s exhilarating. It’s sidesplitting. It’s also confusing.

With his battle between art and censorship, libido and inhibition, criminality and rule of law, Wright seems to be putting forward the standard liberal defense of the artist as a creator with no moral responsibility for the way his work is used. Then, halfway through the play, the marquis’s writings lead to the death of an innocent. At this point, just as the play raises the unwelcome possibility that some ideas might be so dangerous we should fear them, Wright has the marquis break down and weep for the victim, and the intellectual structure of the play collapses. We’re no longer in threatening territory — we’re in the sentimental domain of “The Silence of the Lambs“, with its improbably moral psychopath who is really on the protagonist’s — and thus the audience’s — side.

And is the debate about censorship vs. freedom of expression really that simple? With his witty marquis, sadistic chief physician and bumbling jailer, Wright has stacked the deck for his argument. It’s easy to enlist an audience on the side of the libido and “art.” Try recasting the major characters — make the prisoner David Duke, say, and the jailer Martin Luther King — or substitute a book such as “Mein Kampf” for the marquis’s porn and give Hitler all the cleverest lines — and the play’s attitudinizing begins to look pretty glib.

But even with this hole, “Quills” barrels on to its hilariously ghoulish conclusion, swept by the force of de Coulmier’s disintegration. As written, the abbe sometimes appears to be a straw man, an easy target for the usual anti-church darts: inhibited, hypocritically unaware of his “inappropriate” impulses, displaying the liberal’s inevitable weakness when faced with anything radical. But certainly as Dawn plays him he is a man for whom giving up belief in goodness is anguish. Dawn loses his desperate grip on idealism one torn, bloody finger at a time; his slip into the abyss of his own worst self is a long scream. In this production, at least, he’s the play’s suffering hero.

Not that this leaves King on the sidelines. Whether lounging in a frayed yellow silk waistcoat or insolently splayed naked against the stone walls of his cell, he commands the stage, if not the play. Pixieish and droll, his de Sade has an uncanny calm about him. The guy may be nuts, but he hasn’t got a neurotic bone in his body: He knows how to go after what he wants. King’s performance is masterful, and if his marquis isn’t frightening, this isn’t owing to lack of skill but to the irrepressible charm of the actor’s personality, which no role, however heinous, can quite quench.

The other actors are terrific as well. Morella, Waters and Kryztov Lindquist as a fey architect are roisterously comic and horrifying, while Mary Teresa Fortuna is funny and touching as the laundress who thrills to the marquis’s dirty tales. They romp on a fabulous set by James Kronzer — it looks like a bad dream of a dungeon in a Disney fairy tale. Marianne Meadows’s lighting is lushly inventive. Robin Stapley has designed one gorgeous, smartly detailed costume after another, from the architect’s top hat with a peacock feather stuck in it to the drab toweling undergarments that King’s stripped marquis wears with the casual arrogance of a dethroned monarch. And Scott Burgess provides sound effects that are by turns moody, satirical, funny, unsettling and sad.

De Sade isn’t the perfect choice as a symbol of freedom of expression. His writing is obsessive, repetitive, driven, claustrophobic, the opposite of free. He’s not a lot of fun. But “Quills” is.