There's a story line in Grant Morrison's Invisibles comic-book series where our heroes, King Mob's subversive cell of five Invisible operatives, send themselves back in time to spring the Marquis de Sade from prison. Once they have him in hand, they leap forward to a nightclub in present-day San Francisco. The marquis is bemused to see that the sexual variations he landed in jail for chronicling have become coin of the realm. He expresses his admiration not only that people are now free to flog and frig to their heart's content, but that old restrictive structures of church and state appear to be dissolving to make way for new ways of thinking and taking responsibility for oneself.
It's a subtle point, and one that was easily lost in the froth of outrage that surrounded Sade's career in revolution-era France. While he gave his name to both a whole category of sexual play and a more general desire to inflict pain, it's not as well known that he was also a philosopher and politician. The latter office he performed, of course, between his lengthy and frequent imprisonments; first in Vincennes, then the Bastille, and finally in the Charenton Asylum, where he died. Imprisonment, although it deprived him of companionship, gave him plenty of time to write long, rambling treatises -- some of which had little or no sex in them at all. Yet in the public eye, the Marquis de Sade was a man whose philosophy was overshadowed by his sexual imagination. In Doug Wright's play, Quills, the marquis himself makes fun of the limited vision of his readers. Reciting a story aloud as a young priest reads it silently in another room, the marquis jeers "Blah blah blah sex blah blah blah." He's fully aware that nobody is reading his Playboy for the articles. He'll give his readers sex, blood, and mayhem; it's not his responsibility if they jump over long passages of social commentary to get to the good bits, or if they're inspired to mayhem themselves.
When it comes to mayhem, Quills is swollen with full-frontal male nudity, severed body parts, gleeful immorality, one amazing strap-on, and death everywhere. It seems apt that after a couple of seasons of relatively clean living, the Shotgun Players return to old themes with a vengeance with their current production. This is the same story that was made into a movie with Geoffrey Rush as the institutionalized Sade and Kate Winslet as laundress Madeline LeClerc, the doomed object of his attentions, but it's a lot raunchier.
While the basic plot is intact, much of the focus, style, and tone had to change for the film version, making the two experiences very different. For example, the movie focused more on the relationships and less on the content of what Sade was trying to convey. In the stage version, we get more of the core message about how power corrupts the seemingly incorruptible, and we see more clearly how much Sade hated not only the notion of God but that of God-centered morality. The movie was realistic, the play veers; the movie spoke for artistic freedom, the play against tyranny. Both, like Sade's writings themselves, tuck plenty of disturbing themes between the seat cushions.
Considering their easy familiarity with disturbing themes, the Shotgun Players are the logical choice for this play. Remember that these are the same people who had a crazed Trish Mulholland rip off Andy Alabran's head a few years back while half-naked women writhed on the ground, making it quite clear that they were not wearing panties. This is not, however, the most even production. Especially at the beginning, it seems as though the actors haven't agreed on what sort of play they're in. Not until Judy Phillips as the delightfully loony Madame de Sade makes her breathless appearance (you can virtually smell the face powder and snuff from the third row) do we realize that the beginning at least is satire, if not downright farce. By that time, it's too late for the hapless, well-meaning Abbé de Coulmier and the young architect Prouix, both of whom seem at first overplayed. Madeline LeClerc (who is based on a young woman Sade took as a mistress when he was at Charenton) fares little better; here she is neither vulnerable nor varied, either of which would make her plight more meaningful to the audience.
David Cramer does a better job of holding his ground through the play's tone changes as Dr. Royer-Collard, the asylum's new administrator. He is offended by the young abbé's therapeutic innovations, the "musical interludes and watercolor exercises" that have replaced trusty old standbys such as iron cages, straitjackets, and thumbscrews. Hanging over the good doctor's desk are a lovingly framed collection of scary shiny instruments, and they reflect Royer-Collard's ambition: as cold, hard, and merciless as his most famous inmate is believed to be. But Cramer manages to show a little warmth in a relationship that was given more weight in the film, that of the doctor with his young wife. It's a smaller and dirtier story here. In the film, Madame Royer-Collard was pitiable and her eventual escape with the handsome architect a triumph of female sexuality given wholesome rein; in the play, she's a conniving little bitch who serves primarily to reinforce de Sade's theory of moral emptiness. Cramer handles the discovery of her latest trick with assurance and vulnerability; for a moment the hard shell falls away and Royer-Collard is a man destroyed by a woman he loved despite himself.
But this play is really about the note-perfect Richard Louis James, who is fearless, inventive, and lascivious as Sade. While he was warmly lovely as Stanislavski in last year's The Death of Meyerhold, James has a real gift for creepy, as evidenced by his recent turns in The Play About the Baby at Shotgun and as John Ruskin's nasty, hidebound father in CenterREP's The Countess. Here is a creepiness alloyed with intelligence and wit and an incisive understanding of human nature, all of which James brings forward in such a way that we can't help but admire his Sade. "Would that he were anything but a comely boy surrounded by priests," he hisses as he tells the story of one young unfortunate, and the audience leans forward gleefully, complicit with Sade in his toying with the abbé. The abbé, even were he played by an actor as strong as James, would still be way out of his depth dealing with Sade. At one point, when the younger man insists that a certain act is physically impossible, Sade purrs, "We don't run in the same circles, do we, my cherub?"
This toying is the center of Wright's play, not the relationship between Sade and Madeline, as in the film. Caught between disgust, grudging admiration for his charge, and the demands of his superior, the abbé must be pushed to commit unspeakable acts. Taylor Valentine's abbé, although he does ring false at the beginning, gains in strength as the play progresses and becomes truly heartbreaking by the end.
Quills is a delicately balanced work that needs a strong cast to move convincingly from truly comic moments to blatant despair. Director Reid Davis, although he clearly understood Wright's intent and captures many of the play's subtleties, did not assemble the cast he needed. Fortunately he did get Richard Louis James as his Sade, who would be worth the price of admission alone if the Shotgunners were charging any this season. Along with the buggery and acid social commentary, there's a soft side to Sade, and thanks to James we get that too: Stripped of his paper, ink, clothes, and dignity, his Sade yet prevails.