Tina Farmer – KDHX, August 5, 2014
Max and Louie Productions’ staging of Doug Wright’s “Quills” is a deliciously inventive play weighing our decidedly human fascination with social and sexual mores against the lengths society will go to in the attempt to stifle the works of artists who push the envelope or in other ways make us nervous.
The story loosely chronicles the imprisonment of the Marquis de Sade in a mental asylum and his obsessive need to write; retelling, in specific detail, how he contrived to continue writing even as his ability to do so was curtailed. Excerpts of the Marquis’ writing continually surface throughout the play, no matter how carefully the institution’s priest, the Abbe de Coulmier, and administrator Doctor Royer-Collard work to prevent his self-expression.
The counterpoint to this is the greed and ambition of several supporting characters. The doctor is willing to redirect funds for the patients’ care to satisfy his personal needs, while at the same time convincing the Abbe to administer increasingly draconian punishments to the Marquis. He is, in turn, afflicted with a promiscuous wife. A woman with expensive tastes and a tendency towards inhibition, Madame Royer-Collard doesn’t lack for paramours even when confined to the remote region around the hospital.
Ted Gregory, as the Marquis, Antonio Rodriquez, as the Abbe, and David Wassilak, as Doctor Royer-Collard, so artfully inhabit their characters that they add layers of interest and intrigue to the wonderfully contrived play. Is the Marquis insane or merely a genius driven by a need for self-expression? Is the priest capable of managing the inhabitants of his asylum or does his nurturing nature prevent him from assessing potentially dangerous behavior? Does the doctor really want to serve his patients or is he looking for a way to promote his professional stature and personal wealth?
As the Marquis, Gregory is excessive and verbose, delighting in the sounds of the words on his tongue, languishing over details and descriptions. He slithers and prances across the stage in a game of physical and intellectual cat and mouse with Rodriquez’s Abbe. Rodriguez is compassionate and empathic, he feels deeply. His deep faith and nurturing instinct enables others to influence his actions by appealing to his sensibilities. In contrast, Wassilak’s doctor deflects and manipulates every situation to ensure his hands remain clean and his actions unaccountable.
The three are capably supported by Caitlin Mickey. As the saucy Madeline, a servant with a ripe, earthy nature, she has learned to take pleasure as she finds it, and appreciates its forms without discern. As the cuckolding Madame Royer-Collard, she is insatiable and impetuous.
As Renee Pelagie, the Madame de Marquise, Stacie Knock is a little too affected, but this seems a well-directed choice, suggesting not only that the lady was born of a lower class than she currently holds, but that she aspires to still higher social recognition. It is both annoying and effective for the character, and Knock does a fine walk across that tightrope. As with the entire play, she is certainly absurd, but reigned in to near plausibility.
Finally, Charlie Barron creates distinct and interesting characters as the randy Monsieur Prouix and the delicate, birdlike lunatic with a violent imagination. Each of the characters gets the opportunity to reach for their golden ring, some succeed, some take advantage, some fail, and others die.
The institutional, 1800s-era stone-walled set, by set designer Dunsi Dai, is gorgeously dressed with period-style furniture and lovely feathered quills in the opening scene. Gregory, costumed in a wig and gorgeously embellished clothing, wields the quills with flourish during these scenes. As his punishment increases, his need to write drives him to use any tool and surface at his access. Costume designer Cyndi Lohrman and lighting desire Maureen Berry beautifully recreate the Marquis’ obsession in their designs.
Wright’s script is deeply thoughtful, the wordplay carefully constructed and filled with varying levels of piety and passion, as well as a plethora of gamesmanship. Luckily, this is balanced with generous humor, ranging from bawdy to sly, and a number of genuinely sympathetic and enticingly wicked characters.
Brooke Edwards’ direction is clear and small details, such as having the stage crew dress as patients in the asylum, show a thoughtful approach to storytelling. When accompanied by as talented and committed a cast as in this current production, the result in an engaging, thought-provoking play.