Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Quills"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


by Doug Wright
directed by Rick Lombardo

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

I have yet to see the film version of Doug Wright’s QUILLS but how could it be more effective than its original stage version, so blazingly theatrical in the Grand Guignol manner? (Film realism would only dilute its seductive artifice.) The plot is both simple and profound: a fictionalized Marquis de Sade, imprisoned in Charenton Asylum for his sexual notoriety, now commits his outrages to 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 lurid-loving laundress. When sexual fantasy explodes into a stunning Act One tableau, the Abbe resorts to desperate measures to silence the ever-resourceful Marquis, becoming in the end a monster worthy of the Master, himself. Despite a tendency to underline the obvious, at length --- that his Marquis is an honest, moral man for saying and writing what others are only thinking (he is the fruit of society’s repression) --- Mr. Wright’s black comedy is naughty and witty and entertaining as hell.

New Repertory’s production is its THREEPENNY OPERA or SWEENEY TODD for the season --- another poisoned bonbon wrapped up in red-and-brown cellophane and few (local) directors can match Rick Lombardo at stylizing actors for he is quite at home with melodrama’s thrills, hambones and sweeping gestures though I would now like to see what he can do with fluff or heartfelt sentiment; even his wonderful SCAPIN was gaily mocking. Under Mr. Lombardo’s nimble, dry-icy touch, his current ensemble pops out from a penny dreadful, garishly painted and rouged and lit from below so their faces become living skulls and their shadows loom up from behind as their own stalkers. The most satisfying performances come from Steven Barkhimer as Royer-Collard, turning this way and that in the crosswinds, and Rachel Harker as the Marquis’ long-suffering wife --- Ms. Harker is a rare creature, nowadays: a first-class comedienne who never falls into Camp (an odd compliment: Mr. Barkhimer and Ms. Harker suggest unwashed bodies beneath all their layerings). Kevin Landis is little more than a jittery marionette as Royer-Collard’s cuckolding architect, but Marianna Bassham, last seen as a street-wise Antigone, is delightfully toothsome as a horsy Madeleine. The leading players --- Austin Pendleton, in his third appearance with the company, and Ben Evett --- are not the Marquis and Abbe of my dreams but are well-balanced in their give-and-take with the former’s coyness provoking the latter to escalating madness (again, one extreme begets another); now, should they ever switch roles…. Mr. Pendleton always was and always will be a sad-faced Pierrot ever looking for his moon, going from whispers to roars like that (snap fingers, here) and Mr. Evett, glowering like the late Brother Theodore, continues his hysteria from the company’s recent PERMANENT COLLECTION, his voice having plenty of volume but little music.

Those who have wondered what Mr. Pendleton looks like in the nude will have their answer early in the evening; my only comment is that his Marquis remains amazingly clean in spite of his surroundings.

"Quills" (5 January ­- 6 February)
54 Lincoln Street, NEWTON HIGHLANDS
1 (617) 332-1646

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide