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SF Chronicle, June 12, 2004

'Quills' doesn't keep its point sharp
Dark de Sade fantasy mars Wright's big spring

-- Robert Hurwitt

It's been a banner spring for playwright Doug Wright. First his script for "I Am My Own Wife" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Then, Sunday, the same play walked off with the Tony Award for best play.
Bay Area audiences will get to see "Wife," and its widely acclaimed solo, multi-character star Jefferson Mays, next spring in the new Best of Broadway series. For those who can't wait for a taste of Wright's work, though, the ever-adventurous Shotgun Players is offering the local premiere of his Marquis de Sade drama, "Quills." The play opened Monday, the day after the Tony Awards. Timing, however, turns out to be its most serendipitous aspect.
Shotgun's last show at the Julia Morgan Theater, before it moves into its new Ashby Stage home in the fall, "Quills" -- like Philip Kaufman's movie of the same name -- is a quirky dark fantasy based on de Sade's last years at the Charenton Asylum for the Insane. The similarity to the movie that opened five years ago isn't accidental. Wright wrote the screenplay based on his '95 play.
The good news is that "Quills" the play has much more to offer than Kaufman's tediously uninteresting movie. And it's better written than Wright's unprepossessing screenplay. The bad news, though, is that there's little life in the Shotgun production as seen at Thursday's performance.
Partly, it's a matter of director Reid Davis' slow, deliberate pacing and sometimes poorly focused stagings on Alf Pollard's fragmented asylum set. Partly, it's a problem of raising expectations the production can't meet, especially with the program essay about the gory special effects of the Grand Guignol Theater. The moans, thunder, squeals, clangs and edgy Prokofiev violin passages of Tod Nixon's sound design -- used to cover the overlong set changes -- have little relevance to the play. The attempts at Grand Guignol effects are merely clunky.
What makes the play more interesting than the movie -- besides the absence of Joaquin Phoenix's embarrassing attempt to portray psychological complexity -- is the more intriguingly layered story. It's the same tale of a battle of wills between the imprisoned marquis (Richard Louis James in the Geoffrey Rush role); the kindly, liberal Abbé de Coulmier (Taylor Valentine, a breath of fresh air compared to Phoenix); and the rigorous, ambitious and venal Dr. Royer-Collard (David Cramer subbing for Michael Caine), sent by Napoleon to stop the flow of de Sade's scandalous writings.
Where the movie got sidetracked on a subplot about the laundress Madeleine, who smuggles out de Sade's manuscripts (if you've got Kate Winslet, you don't want to kill her off before the show's half over), the play pays more attention to the three-way cat-and-mouse game and the impact of the writings. Madeleine (a perky, vital Lisa Jenai Hernandez) adds some spice to that conflict, as does the doctor's scheming wife (a callously witchy Hernandez) -- a role better developed in the film.
Isolated in his chambers -- its genteel furnishings contrasting with the distressed plaster walls in Pollard's design -- de Sade writes like a madman. James artfully depicts his driven temperament, guile, smarmy charm and aristocratic sense of privilege. Plentiful quotations from de Sade's work, beautifully spoken, add to the portrait. Ensconced in his magisterially dark- paneled office on the other side of the stage, Cramer's solid but rather monochromatically manipulative doctor plots the marquis' downfall.
The doctor is encouraged by de Sade's wife (Judy Phillips in a comically melodramatic turn), who suffers terribly from the social snubs her husband's notoriety costs her -- and whose money the doctor needs in his attempt to hold onto his wife. The abbé is the central battleground on which the conflict plays out, continually frustrated in his attempts to reform the marquis and maneuvered by the doctor into using harsher, more horrific means of control.
The battle plays out with unsettling echoes of the Bush administration's prisoner abuse scandals, as Valentine's sincere abbé is driven to strip de Sade of his furniture and writing implements, then his clothes and finally various body parts -- with increasingly deep religious conviction. The arguments over censorship and whether violence in art engenders social violence are vividly depicted.
But the show doesn't hold together. Pollard's set evokes the time and place well enough, with Donna Marie's attractive period costumes, but its main playing areas are too spread out, with an underused gaping hole in the center. Davis hasn't blended the varied performances into a unified approach or created a strong dramatic arc in the pacing.
Though written 30 years later, Wright's play ends up seeming like a timid precursor to Peter Weiss' "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade." Not only timid, but -- sorry, marquis -- flaccid as well.

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