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Daily Californian, June 10, 2004

Still Crazy After All These Years
Berkeley’s Shotgun Players and the Marquis de Sade: Decent Combination, Flawed Script



For a free play, the Shotgun Players’ current production of “Quills” definitely earns its keep. Brilliantly creepy sound design by Tod Nixon and great performances from the cast do justice to Doug Wright’s play about the Marquis de Sade, the sexually perverse eighteen-century writer who brought the word “sadism” into the public lexicon.
If you’re in the mood for some scathing shocking, affordable fun, watch this play. Watch the Marquis de Sade (Richard Louis James in a blazing performance) make a pass at a priest, prance around naked, and puke through a mouth sewn shut. It’s titilating. It’s free. What can you lose?
That said, the Shotgun Players’ production of this oft-performed play falls well short of greatness. To be fair, part of the blame falls on the script, which makes Sade’s fate a moral treatise on the effects of trying to suppress free speech.
The director of the Charenton insane asylum, Dr. Royer-Collard (a delightfully sleazy David Cramer), humors the Marquis de Sade’s social climber wife (an awkward and miscast Judy Phillips) while embezzling the money she provides for her inmate husband. Royer-Collard manipulates Priest Abbe de Coulmier (an appealingly pure Taylor Valentine) into torturing Sade out of Sade’s gory, licentious writings.
But the defiant Sade won’t be silenced. When his quills and paper are removed, Sade writes in blood on his clothes. When he’s stripped naked, he writes in feces on the walls of his cell. As the once pure De Coulmier goes slowly insane, Sade’s stories are whispered from inmate to inmate and inspire violent riots.
As both Sade’s resistance and De Coulmier’s repression get more extreme, the play gets more and more shrill in its indictment of censorship. Wright sacrifices any sense of emotional truth for a contrived, vampy ending that sides too obviously with the martyred Sade.
The play crosses the line from bracing satire into over-the-top campiness, turning the priest into a screaming necrophiliac and Sade into an heroic defender of free speech. Wright would have done better to write in some emotional subtlety instead of pounding it into the audience’s heads that the play is meant to be a kind of anti-censorship fable.
The performances on opening night radiated energy, though some of the cast stumbled over lines. Lisa Jenai Hernandez’s performance as the laundress who befriends Sade is refreshingly earthy, but Hernandez doesn’t seem comfortable with the elegant language that Wright puts into the eighteenth-century character’s mouth. Phillips has the same problem with her role as Sade’s wife; her throaty voice just can quite pull off the silky, coquetteish language of the society woman.
James’s Sade is magnificent. When Sade first appears in the play, James is sitting at his desk in his prison cell. His whole body writhes sensuously as his quill scratches across a blank page. It’s a mesmerizing pantomime that promises as great a performance as James delivers. When De Coulmier strips Sade to prevent his writing, James struts naked around the empty cell spewing invective, his unembarassed sneer proclaiming him the victor over the quivering priest.
But James’s magnetic performance just isn’t enough to save “Quills.” It’s difficult to appreciate Wright’s sympathetic portrayal of Sade as a pawn in Dr. Royer-Collard’s game when Wright uses Sade just as mercilessly for the sake of heavy-handed allegory.

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