Oakland Tribune, June 14, 2004
Drawing room sadism of 'Quills' could use more thrills
--By Chad Jones, STAFF WRITER
WHEN you invite the Marquis de Sade to the party, you know things could get a little dicey. The grandfather of S&M is kicking up some dust on the Bay Area theater scene in the local premiere of Doug Wright's "Quills. "Quills," which premiered in 1995, was on and off the Magic Theatre's season schedule, but for whatever reason, the Magic never produced the play. That left another enterprising theater company to snap it up, and that company just happens to be Berkeley's Shotgun Players. The wait to produce the play actually turned out to be lucky. With last week's opening of "Quills," Shotgun can boast a production penned by this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama (for the Broadway hit "I Am My Own Wife," also the winner of this year's Tony Award for best play).
It's probably safe to assume that in the nine years since "Quills" first appeared, Wright has evolved as a writer and learned a thing or two about structuring a play. When San Francisco filmmaker Philip Kaufman turned "Quills" into a 2000 movie starring Michael Caine, Geoffrey Rush and Kate Winslet, he wisely concentrated on the play's first act and pretty much ignored the sloppy second. When Wright begins telling the story of the Marquis' final, rebellious days in the Charenton Asylum in a village near Paris in the early part of the 19th century, he exercises a wry, intelligent, measured tone. He's asking questions about the nature of art, the responsibility of the artist and the impact of repression and censorship. The fact that the center of his play is a man of utter depravity and debauchery guarantees a certain element of provocative drama, so at least the audience is alert.
The Marquis de Sade depicted in "Quills," and played with creepy effervescence by Richard Louis James, is a fairly harmless pervert who, for reasons of art or insanity, refuses to be silenced in his quest to document every sexual proclivity known to man, beast or reprobate. In the end, despite all the talk of torture and unrestrained hedonism, the Marquis turns out to be an old libertine who's just as susceptible to love as the rest of us. Nothing is dangerous, unpredictable or scary about "Quills," which is something that cannot be said for that other play about the Marquis, Peter Weiss' 1964 "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade."
A good production of "Marat/Sade" can make you feel as unhinged as the asylum inmates depicted on stage.
"Quills" is another matter. This is drawing room sadism. You don't necessarily want to take your mother (and Shotgun won't allow audience members younger than 17), but there's a whole lot of talk and not a lot of action.
Wright does have an elegant way of turning a phrase.
Defending himself against the sanctimonious, embezzling asylum director (David Cramer), the Marquis says that his writing is akin to therapy.
"If we weren't such bad men on the page, doctor, I hazard that we would not be such good men in life," he says.
Because his writing provokes such outrage (and, in some circles, delight), the Marquis is stripped of his writing privileges. All paper, quills and ink are confiscated, so maintaining that "in conditions of adversity, the artist thrives!" the Marquis begins writing in wine, blood and, um, other things.
He will not be silenced.
"If Mother Nature did not want me to tickle my own fancy, she would not have provided me with two free hands," he says.
Even as the play devolves into a Grand Guignol horror show of murder, dismemberment and madness, Wright maintains his sense of humor, especially in the character of the Marquis' socially stunted wife (played with glee by Judy Phillips).
But that humor, though welcome, makes things difficult for director Reid Davis, who fails to get a handle on the overall tone of "Quills."
Is it a satire about oppression and the artistic impulse? Or is it a drama about the power of depravity and man's denial of his true nature? There's more evidence for the latter, especially in the story of Abbe de Coulmier (Taylor Valentine), a young monk who believes the Marquis can be cured of his "corrosive habits" but who ends up more dark and depraved than the Marquis himself.
At two hours and 40 minutes, the play is too long, and although James and Valentine have some powerful moments, "Quills" too often seems like torture without the thrills.