Newspaper Review

Vincent Canby – The New York Times, 1995

Some New Antics In That Charenton Asylum

It can’t have been easy being married to literature’s most notorious libertine: Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). That’s clear with the initial appearance of Renee, the Marquise, in Doug Wright’s raffish new comedy, “Quills“, about the final years of Sade’s life in the Charenton mental asylum outside Paris.

The play, directed with discipline and elan by Howard Shalwitz, opened last night at the New York Theater Workshop.

As played by Lola Pashalinski, Renee has something of the breathlessness of Laura Hope Crews’s Aunt Pittypat in “Gone With the Wind” combined with the ferocity of a madam of a successful, upscale bordello. Renee has come to Charenton in the hope not that her husband will be released, but that when he dies, he will “be left as carrion for the rodents and the worms.”

In the meantime she wants to make sure that the authorities put an end to his literary activities: take away his quills and ink.

After nearly 50 years of marriage, during much of which time the Marquis has been incarcerated in one institution or another, Renee is fed up; her husband’s debauches outside prison and his pornographic writings issued from within have totally destroyed her social life. Hostesses vomit at the mention of her name. When she enters a box at the opera, the performance stops in mid-aria as everyone turns to stare. Fainthearted priests have been known to burn the pews she has occupied.

Ms. Pashalinski is not on the stage that often, but her full-throttle, grandly tacky impatience helps to set and to secure the comic tone of “Quills“, which is part theater of the ridiculous, part comedy of manners and part Grand Guignol. In his singularly backhanded way, Mr. Wright is also celebrating the artist-as-revolutionary.

Sade never wasted his time when locked up. While in the Bastille just before the revolution, he wrote “The 120 Days of Sodom“, a work so scandalous that it wasn’t published in its unexpurgated original until this century. Though he tried to align himself with the revolution’s leaders, they weren’t much interested in his thesis that liberty, equality and fraternity meant the freedom to indulge sexual appetites in the spectacular and dangerous ways he fancied.

According to Mr. Wright’s phantasmagoria, Renee makes an agreement with Dr. Royer-Collard (Daniel Oreskes), Charenton’s chief medical officer, to finance the purchase of basic new equipment (thumbscrews, shackles, pillories and such) to bring the asylum up to standard. In return, he’s to see to it that the Marquis stops writing. Instead, the doctor uses her fortune to pacify his own philandering wife by building a chateau to rival Fontainebleau.

Meanwhile, the Abbe de Coulmier (Jefferson Mays), the asylum’s humanist adminstrator, goes merrily on, allowing Sade and the other inmates to give vent to their madness in therapeutic theatricals, musicales, painting and writing.

The result: chaos and disaster, especially for the Marquis. But then Sade’s drive to reform the world in his own image was so strong as to be supernatural, at least according to Mr. Wright.

Sade was a worn-out old man when he died, but in the person of Rocco Sisto in “Quills,” he’s a handsome man of middle years and diabolic charm who hides any problems of sexual impotency with his aggressive mind and manner. He flatters the Abbe with his erudition and bewitches the pretty young seamstress, Madeleine (Katy Wales Selverstone), with his stories. Far from being shocked by the tales of bondage, torture, virtue betrayed and heedless murders, the innocent Madeleine sees them simply as gaudy reflections of the world she knows.

Mr. Wright sometimes can’t resist easy laughs about the Marquis’s fondness for the pains that please. When the Abbe tells him that the doctor would flay him alive, Sade’s response — “a man after my own heart” — isn’t good enough. Most of the time, though, the playwright successfully blends intentional archness, grotesque exaggeration and bold humor to create a theatrical experience of real wit.

His Marquis is a character of substantial subversiveness, especially in his scenes with the good Abbe, whom he taunts, flirts with and eventually destroys. Bits and pieces of Sade’s tales are heard either as they’re being written by their author or as they’re being read by others. Today, post-Nietzsche, post-Freud, they seem almost quaint, but occasionally even in hindsight they still have the power to shock.

Mr. Shalwitz’s production uses the large New York Theater Workshop stage to good advantange. Neil Patel’s double-decker set, representing various locations in and around the asylum, allows the play to move with the speed necessary to keep the comedy from bogging down in literal details. The Grand Guignol effects at the end are not only funny, but they also make a point.

Especially noteworthy among the members of the good cast are Mr. Sisto, Mr. Oreskes, Mr. Mays and Ms. Pashalinski, whose performance is evidence of her 13 years as a founding member of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company.

Don’t confuse “Quills” with any memories of the Broadway production or the film version of Peter Brook’s “Marat/Sade“. “Quills” doesn’t mean to be an epic. It’s a theatrical entertainment that manages to be serious fun along the way.