note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Beverly Creasey
Doug Wright’s QUILLS hits all the marks in the debate over pornography. Is it free speech? Does it lead to violence? Is it an abomination against God? Is it necessary: That is, can we know “good” without the contrast of “evil”? Did God create “evil” to give us the chance to be “good’?
And who better to articulate the issues than the Marquis deSade, his name emblazoned across the centuries and permanently engraved in every psychology text ever printed. What a task to portray this larger than life anti-hero. Austin Pendleton does so with relish in the New Rep’s brazen production of QUILLS.
The play starts off unevenly but once everyone is whipped into a frenzy, the pitch evens out. Poor Rachel Harker as the Marquis’ estranged wife. When the play begins, we don’t know, of course, how funny it will be, so we don’t quite comprehend why her performance is over the top. You may be taken aback by the grisly goings-on and surprised at how amusing the horror is, in a SWEENEY TODD sort of way.
Director Rick Lombardo is keenly adept at satire. You will laugh and wince at the same time at the unfolding corruption. Richard Chambers has created a dark, dungeon set with voyeuristic peepholes for us to witness the torture in silhouette (lit blood red by John R. Malinowski.).
Steven Barkhimer is the unscrupulous director of the asylum, whose insistence upon Draconian punishment is initially opposed by Benjamin Evett’s impressionable priest. When they cannot control the Marquis by any means, the priest changes his conciliatory tune and begins a downward spiral to embrace everything he despises.
Frances Nelson McSherry’s elaborate wigs and colorful corsets and vests for the men in the play are sharply contrasted by the rather subdued costumes for the women, adding to the shocking effect when the Marquis is stripped of his finery and his dignity. Kevin Landis makes a fabulous fop in McSherry’s silks. Marianna Bassham shines in two roles, as the laundress fascinated by the Marquis and as Barkhimer’s lascivious wife, a nifty transformation which sent me to my program to see if it were the same actress in both roles.
QUILLS requires some mighty fancy footwork to keep it from sagging from the weight of the author’s message (and it seems to shift focus from the Marquis to the priest at play’s end) but for the most part, Lombardo’s company cuts a riveting swath across the 18th century.