In 1803, having pissed off Napoleon with his dirty political books, the Marquis de Sade found himself imprisoned in Charenton asylum. He was 63 and grossly overweight, but an elderly priest named Coumier oversaw his detention, treating him kindly, and, hoping art would cure the debauched Marquis, indulging him with paper and ink. This met with some opposition from the head of the asylum, but Sade spent his last years writing and directing plays with the inmates as his actors, paying his underage laundress for sex, and scribbling page after page of gruesome masturbatory fantasies. Thus he held out for years until dying in his bed at age 74.
Playwright Doug Wright blithely uses only the historical premise and names to create his story, and while one could take issue with this—he paints godly men as necrophilic torturers, arrogant sadists as free-speech poster boys, and teenage whores as virgins—he does it in the service of philosophical concerns about the suppression of transgressive ideas, an artist's obligation to society and how the sexual power plays of S-M can transcend the bed. It's a breathtaking play, two hours of Gothic morbidity, frontal nudity, violence and brain-searing intellectual arguments.
Quills' success/failure depends on two factors: a fearless actor playing Sade and the clear vision of the director. Unfortunately, both are absent from this Stages production. Tom Patrick Proprofsky's Marquis is too young for the role and looks to have been cast for his pectorals rather than his acting. Sade was a storyteller, however deviant, and Proprofsky can't get his unskilled tongue around Wright's brilliant dialogue. He's also ridiculously reticent about the nudity, demurely hiding his nether regions with a hand, a crossed leg, another actor or a prop. Since he's nude for 75 percent of the show, this comical avoidance ends up looking like a hotel scene out of Austin Powers.
Gary Krinke's unfocused direction rushes everyone along like crystal-meth casualties, with nary a contemplative moment, and the diction is possibly the worst I've ever heard, with every line either mumbled or shouted. In the end, unless you've seen the film, the script's complexities simply don't get communicated. Krinke's version also inexplicably cuts Wright's most powerful/horrible/beautiful images: a character's mouth is sewn shut; a character is murdered and we see the ravaged body; another character goes insane; the Marquis flips between the personas of the devil and Christ; and, in a bravura final moment, the Marquis' severed head wills his dismembered body parts to keep writing! Instead of that stunner, Krinke resorts to a pointless homoerotic moment with the Marquis playing Christ on the cross while another actor fondles Proprofsky's abdomen. Now, I can appreciate a director making a play his own, but replacing Wright's stunning imagery with his own is a lousy trade-off. Instead of adding a frisson, it compromises the play and cuts the balls off the show, with the director eventually having more in common with Sade's fictional persecutors than with the protagonist himself.
Quills at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Nov. 10. $12-$15.
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