note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Carl A. Rossi
Marquis de Sade … Timothy Otte
Abbe de Coulmier … Eric Hamel
Madeleine LeCleur … Jenny Reagan
Dr. Royer-Collard … James Bocock
Renee Pelagie … Sally Nutt
Madame Royer-Collard … Kirin McCrory
Monsieur Prouix / Lunatic … Erin Gilligan
Any theatre company taking on Doug Wright’s QUILLS has a hot potato on its hands: set in eighteenth-century France, a fictionalized Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in Charenton Asylum for his sexual notoriety, now commits his outrages on paper; Dr. Royer-Collard, the newly-appointed head of the asylum, has already seized one of the Marquis’ novels and assigns the Abbe de Coulmier to monitor this satyr-madman who has begun to smuggle his stories out of prison with the help of Madeleine, a smitten laundress. When sexual fantasy explodes into murder, the Abbe resorts to desperate measures to restrain the Marquis, becoming a monster surpassing the Master, himself. QUILLS can be read on several levels: a parable about censorship versus freedom of expression, a debate on the aesthetics of pornography and its place in society, and a vaudeville where the comedian (the Marquis) gives the straight-man (the Abbe) a continuous slow burn.
Two hot potatoes, really: (1) the Marquis’ graphic arias and (2) his cavorting in the nude for half of his stage-time. The Bad Habits production fumbles and all but drops them: Daniel Morris has directed with a long, distancing arm that diminishes the Marquis’ hypnotic sway over others, making QUILLS a very talky play, indeed --- Shaw or Shaffer with naughty words. Timothy Otte makes a nimble-tongued Marquis of little danger and is a mature yet trim nude; while the audience is free to take repeated stock of Mr. Otte’s inventory, the Abbe and Madeleine lock eyes with their Marquis lest their gazes, too, also stray --- and a delicious comic moment has been lost: imagine the girl’s gaze, upon seeing her first naked man, repeatedly traveling from the Marquis’ face to his penis and back again whilst conversing! Apart from Sally Nutt, who brings some stylization to the Marquis’ rattled wife, the uneven cast wrestles more with declamation than characterization (oddly, only one of them attempts a French accent), and Wendy Misinuis has dressed her actors in colliding eras. Samantha LeDoyt’s stark lighting is no match for the fetid atmosphere that New Repertory created for its own production, five seasons ago --- in that atmosphere, the animal came out in all of the characters and made for a wicked black comedy. My one nitpik with New Rep’s achievement is echoed, here: both Marquises, when nude, remain(ed) remarkably clean in their cells.