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Contra Costa Times, June 9, 2004




Seemingly overnight, Doug Wright has become the hottest name in American theater. His latest play, "I Am My Own Wife," won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize; earlier this week, it also picked up a best play Tony Award.
Wright's been around for a while, though, and "Quills" is one of the plays that helped put him on the map. His retelling of the persecution of the Marquis de Sade won an Obie Award following its original New York run, and the playwright adapted the screenplay when it was made into a feature film starring Geoffrey Rush.

Constructed in a weird amalgam of styles including comedy, melodrama and Grand Guignol, the play is ultimately a thoughtful -- and horrifyingly funny -- satire on the dangers of censorship. It's a good play, but the new staging by the Shotgun Players -- billed as its Bay Area premiere -- only takes it part way to its full potential.Directed by Reid Davis, Monday's opening at the Julia Morgan Theater captured much of the drama and biting humor in Wright's script, with several particularly strong performances in the leading roles.
Elsewhere, though, the show seemed a little clunky. It's a little on the long side -- Monday's performance ran 2 hours, 50 minutes, with one intermission -- and still a few rehearsals away from being a finished product.

"Quills" begins after Sade (the erudite Richard Louis James) has already committed the savage acts that got him locked away in the lunatic asylum at Charenton. Now all he wants to do is write, and write he does: long, salacious stories filled with unspeakable acts, created to please himself as much as his fellow inmates and their keepers. He finds an especially avid reader in the asylum's laundress, Madeline (Lisa Jenai Hernandez).

Charenton's resident priest, Abbe de Coulmier (an earnest Taylor Valentine), thinks the writing is good therapy and keeps Sade stocked with paper, ink and the quills of the title. Yet the fate of the inmates rests with newly appointed staff physician Dr. Royer-Collard (David Cramer). Convinced that discipline has gotten too lax, the doctor plans to reinstate the old methods -- such as bleeding and torture -- for keeping the lunatics in line.
He also declares Sade's writing pornographic. In a scene recalling 20th century debates over government funding of the arts, the good doctor hands an offending manuscript to the priest; the especially lurid parts are already marked.

Sade is ordered to stop writing, and thus begins a long cycle of debasement. They take away his paper; he writes on bed sheets. They confiscate his ink; he uses his own blood. When he resorts to an oral form of storytelling, they decide to silence him for good.
James does a fine job as Sade, balancing the character's madness with a keen intellect and brilliant imagination. His is an articulate, sympathetic monster, one who often seems more reasonable than his keepers.

He gets his most solid support from Valentine's tormented priest and Hernandez's spirited, down-to-earth Madeline. Cramer's wooden doctor, Jason W. Wong's tentative Prouix and Judy Phillips' over-the-top Renee strained credulity.

The Gothic extremes of "Quills" find an apt setting in the gloomy Julia Morgan, although Alf Pollard's scenic designs divide the cavernous stage into smaller playing areas without clearly defining any of them. Robert Ted Anderson's lighting, Tod Nixon's sound and Donna Marie's costumes add to the slightly feverish atmosphere.

So do some of the production's most explicit scenes. This is not a show for the faint of heart, or anyone who objects to male full-frontal nudity. The Shotgun Players are recommending it for audiences 17 and older.There are some powerful moments in the production, and they may cohere to a greater degree as the run continues. It's clear that Davis and company believe in Wright's play, particularly as a vehicle for advocating free expression. Censorship is futile, "Quills" suggests. "In conditions of adversity," says Sade, "the artist thrives.

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