A Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Quills"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Larry Stark


by Doug Wright Directed by Rick Lombardo

Scenic Design by Richard Chambers
Sound Design by Rick Lombardo
Fight Consultant Ted Hewlett
Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski
Costume Design by Fances Nelson McSherry
Production Stage Manager Cheryl D. Olszowka

Dr. Royer-Collard........................Steven Barkhimer
Monsieur Prouix/Lunatic......................Kevin Landis
Renee Pelagie...............................Rachel Harker
Abbe de Coulmier...........................Benjamin Evett
The Marquis..............................Austin Pendleton
Madeleine Leclerc/Madame Royer-Collard...Marianna Bassham

Of course any play with the Marquis deSade as a character must, inevitably, deal in excess. Indeed, in the very first scene the director of the Charenton madhouse (Steven Barkhimer) admits to an obsequious architect (Kevin Landis) that he must build a most expensive chateau in an attempt to distract his wife from her nymphomania --- and he finances it by charging deSade's wife a hefty subsidy for curing her husband's anti-social obsessions. (Neither scheme works, by the way.)

The second scene also paints in background, with the Marquisse outlining the crimes her husband was arrested for, as well as the revulsion of all her society friends at his actions and his writings. (Remember, the play takes place in those "fifteen glorious years" of Napoleon's bloody revolution.) The theme of excess underscores the approach Rachel Harker (here "dowdied-down" by Frances McSherry's costume) takes to the long, flowery sentences of the early 1800's. Her every sentence begins with a high-pitched self-pitying shriek, only to descend for its end into a sharp, gutteral growl of spiteful hate. The crimes and society's reactions seem extreme already, but Playwright Doug Wright has heights --- or depths --- no audience can expect.

In the following scene the first real protagonist (Antagonist? Hero and villain are in the eye of the beholder here!): the rational, enlightened hospital head-resident (Benjamin Evett). This Abbe de Coulmier would prefer to substitute music and kindness for the whip, the thumbscrew and the rack as therapies for the insane, but his aristocratic nut-case on one side, and the impatient hospital-director on the other whip-saw him into compromise.

And then --- though he has been sitting in his own little bubble of light on one side of the stage, dabbling with a goose-quill-pen --- the Marquis himself appears, writing pornographic stories-to-order for a young maid (Marianna Bassham), and charging her one kiss per page. Initially Austin Pendleton is gaudily festooned in period finery, with impossibly gaudy flowers decorating his gilded shoes. In the wink of an eye, the play becomes a duel to the death between Coulmier and deSade, the church and an anti-Christ, over --- artistic freedom in literature!

They are flawlessly matched. Evett is a vesuvius of moral rectitude and astonishment at how far the Marquis pushes the limits of blasphemous muddling of plasure and pain, degradation and debaucheries. But Austin Pendleton is a quiet actor, and seems initially indifferent to every criticism --- literary or moral. He seems light, self-controlled, serene, until pushed. He describes in quiet, chillingly quiet terms the sight he had from his prison cell of the parade of victims to the gallows, the seas of blood and heaps of bodies, the wails and moans of widows and orphaned children, which he insists were infinitely more immoral than his sexual diversions --- which were fantasies on paper, not gross acts of reality.

In his conversations, and his quotes from the newly penned tales he insists he cannot stop writing, he enjoys outraging and tittilating his adversary. He at one point invents the idea of "sublimation" Freud enunciated a hundred years later --- suggesting that writing of such things avoids his attempting to carry them out. As in the books, he speaks in flowery hyperbolic euphemisms. He rarely says "["heck"]" or "["darn"]" right out loud --- though, as is true of the real man's literary output, his plots are enervatingly repetitious and his style, though witty, suffers from a terminal case of the cutes. Yet Pendleton's self-aware, laid-back quietness is that of a time-bomb --- or no, of a land-mine. His core of literary pride suggests "Thwart me at your peril!" The duel endures to the very end.

And what can Evett's doctor or Barkhimer's director do to stiffle the lawless effects of deSade's penchant for chaos? Confiscate his quills and paper? Remove all the clothing on which he writes in his own blood? Cut out his tongue to prevent him whispering obscene tales to a fellow madman who will write them down? Worse? --- Yes!

It is true that Pendleton, his hair near as white as the wig he had hoped to twist into strings of dirty words, spends much of the play totally naked, his shanks and pizzle and nether globes (as the Marquis would say) indifferently exposed as he languidly insists on an artist's right to write what he must. And that is, indeed, exactly the problem the A.C.L.U. continually addresses: push freedom to its ultimate limits in the most extreme of cases, and watch the fur fly.

In my days as a bookseller I told patrons who would not say they were over twenty-one that I preferred not to sell them the Marquis' works --- only because the police were, at the time, arresting any book sellers unaware enough to "corrupt the morals of minors". But when I sampled some pages of the works thus given front-page publicity, I had a much better reason to withhold sale: I found the stuff boring in the extreme. Since Doug Wright's script, Rick Lombardo's direction, and the work of this talented cast quote only short selected passages, keeping the audience's attention on the conflict over the right of artists to make whatever they damn please, I felt neither threatened, scandalized, tittilated, or debased. In fact, from the initial near-the-top exchanges I found much of the play delightfully funny, and its defense of art eloquently rewarding.

But I am a strange old man...


"Quills" (5 January - 6 February)
Box Office: 1161 Walnut St., NEWTON HIGHLANDS, MA 02461
1(617) 332-1646

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