By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Sarah Bennett
By LP Hastings
By Jena Ardell
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
By Joel Beers
With the Internet in everyone's pockets these days, we're only a few clicks from finding out just about everything we never wanted to know about anything. Examples: necrophilia, apotemnophilia, coprophilia. But in 18th-century France, polite society members would never have spoken of fucking the dead, getting off on the thought of their limbs being cut off, or rolling around in shit. Hell, even impolite society members might have hurled at the very thought.
But not the notorious advocate of paraphilia, the Marquis de Sade. The patron saint of sadists, masochists and all them happy-go-lucky types who champion their embracing of fetishes as the epitome of sexual liberation (if it doesn't feel, smell or taste good, it must be good, right?), the French aristocrat was, depending on one's perspective, history's greatest pornographer or a luminous symbol of the nobility of unrestrained artistic expression. Doug Wright champions the latter in his 1995 play, Quills. Taking ample historical license, Wright re-imagines the final days of the Duke of Depravity (who actually died in his sleep at the age of 74) in the Charenton asylum, one of the houses of incarceration he spent much of his later life in—whether it was due to his profane, political writings or his reported penchant for abusing, even killing, people who traversed his sexual path.
Though his body is incarcerated, de Sade refuses to stifle his mind. Forbidden to write for public perusal, he recruits the peasant girl who darns his clothes, Madeline, to smuggle his pages out of the asylum. When the authorities catch wind, he resorts to increasingly desperate measures, from creating a human telegraph of asylum inmates to dipping his fingers in his feces to scribble on the floor and walls of his cell. This, of course, drives the asylum's chief administrator bonkers, so he recruits a pious Catholic priest to convince de Sade to cease writing—or else.
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The play is fashioned in no small part on the legacy of the grotesquely over-the-top, blood-drenched Grand Guignol theater, which bewitched Parisian audiences from the late 19th century through the mid-20th. It's a pitch-black comedy that wrestles with several Big Ideas: public morality versus artistic expression, incarceration as rehabilitation or punishment, the age-old theme of state-sanctioned authority versus the individual. It's Randall P. McMurphy meets the Spanish Inquisition, a heady, intoxicating brew of perversity and polemics, something an adventurous left-of-center theater company such as California Repertory would be all over like an ursusagalmatophiliac on Fozzie Bear.
Unfortunately, its production bombs under the direction of Larissa Paige Kokernot. Actors either gallop or trudge across the stage without conscious need of connecting with one another. They're either somber and stoic or garish caricatures. Only Anna Steers, as the semi-smitten Madeline, traverses the dual tracks of satire and serious. There's little method to the madness, and it turns a robust, wickedly incisive meditation on censorship and free expression into an X-rated Three's Company episode, but without Jack bending Chrissy over the divan while Mr. Roper pumps Janet in the pooper.
It's a frustrating mess: There's nibbling, but no biting. Pawing, but no scratching. Token creepiness, but no real edge, either from the Maestro of Malevolence or the real evil in this play, the institution that seeks to censor his unique, if profane, voice. Jerry Prell, as our Ambassador of Atrocity, is the wittiest, sharpest, purest person in the room. His de Sade wins every argument, manipulates every situation and is the only person with genuine integrity. But it's all so fucking easy that it borders on ridiculous. The major player arrayed against him, the Abbe, talks a good game, but in the body and with the mouth of Jerry Prior, he lacks dimension. Prior's character has no center, no subtext, no personality; he merely reacts.
And when the onus is finally on him to act, his bloodless characterization has long since drained his character of any intrigue. It's hard to invest in your chief articulator and instigator when he's been chief capitulator for so long. And not caring about the Abbe's transformation from pious religious to bloodthirsty zealot is key in this play. By not signaling, in some crafty fashion, the dark depths he's willing to plunge into, Prior's Abbe fails to illuminate half of one of Wright's main points: that beneath the skin of every sanctimonious moralist beats the heart of a pervert.
It's not that Quills, which won an OBIE Award in 1995 for best off-Broadway play, needs to be only dark and sinister. One of the hallmarks of the aforementioned Grand Guignol was humor in a jugular vein. But so much of what happens in this production seems geared just for laughs. That neuters a tale of one of history's most ball-driven writers. If he weren't in the middle of organizing a 666-person gangbang in the first ditch of the Malebolge, the good Marquis might be turning in his grave.
This review appeared in print as "A Production Full of Santorum: Cal Rep takes the great play Quills and turns it into a frustrating mess."