Review: Spooking the Marquis de Sade and his ‘Quills’

What has Halloween done to the play “Quills,” the fictionalized account about the chief doctor of an asylum who orders an abbot to stop one of its patients – the Marquis de Sade – from writing?

Luna Theater Company is marketing “Quills” as a Halloween-season show for adults, and the premise stretches to the production, in its sound design by Adam Vidiksis, who has composed and executed a weird and ghostly aural backdrop to the show. At first, it’s impressive. But then it’s overkill. It runs, in different melodies marking new scenes, through nearly the entire play, giving “Quills” a melodramatic feel that trivializes the already powerful script.

You don’t have to spookify Doug Wright’s play. It’s ghastly enough in its depiction of the Establishment’s methods of shutting up the Marquis, who’s imprisoned in Charenton Asylum but manages to fight back by continuing to write stories bursting with lust and torture. First the asylum’s chief doctor, through an abbot, takes away de Sade’s quills, ink and paper. The Marquis responds by writing with blood on his sheets. Then they take his sheets, his clothes, and worse, until the very punishments they conceive are every bit as evil as the tortures he only writes about.

That distinction is paramount in Wright’s play, which asks whether writing forcefully about anything is the same as doing it and whether powerful writing makes the author responsible for the actions of readers. On some parts of the planet, these questions are as germane now as they would have been two centuries back.

Wright’s play, which also takes into account the Marquis’ rants against the Catholic Church and the mores it promoted, is now almost 20 years old. He later went on to write works as diverse his Tony-winning “I Am My Own Wife” and the script for the musical “Grey Gardens.” He re-wrote “Quills” as a screenplay in 2000 for a starry cast, including Jeffrey Rush and Kate Winslet. Although much of the play is grounded in fact – at Charenton, the Marquis’ quills were removed – its ever-more dramatic elements are either conflated from several incidents or altogether made up. “Never,” Wright cautioned Saturday at an event at Sardi’s in New York, “make the mistake of confusing a playwright with a biographer.”

Fair enough, and when I saw Luna’s “Quills” production the next day, I was greatly taken with the arc that Wright creates to give the story its dramatic chops. Luna’s production has some nice plusses. Robb Hutter is an alternately charming and provoking de Sade – Hutter uses his forceful voice to persuade and cajole and, in a more robust airing, to persuade and threaten. His is a stylish marquis, even after his overseers take all his clothes and the only way for Hutter to sustain the character is through the organic delivery of his lines.

The other standout performance comes from another compelling actor, Mark Knight, playing the doctor assigned to bring order to the asylum, if not to his own disheveled life. Knight is constantly in the moment, while some other cast members seem to be searching for it. He can be a hulking presence on stage, an asset he coolly modulates as necessary.

Alan Holmes’ portrayal of the misguided abbot and Nell Bang-Jensen’s of the asylum’s laundress who smuggles de Sade’s stories to a waiting French public are lively but not fully realized – their characters come across as just that, and not people. And while Ethan Lipkin’s architect (he’s building the doctor’s lavish house) is too fussy, Sonja Robson’s as the Marquis’ former wife is too flat.

Luna’s artistic director, Gregory Scott Campbell, stages the play with little nuance; the pieces of it that can be amusing are not, and too much of the rest plays as a crescendo. Campbell had the right instincts in ordering up Millie Hiibel’s period French costumes and Dirk Durossette’s severe asylum set. What’s missing is the brio that makes “Quills” more than a history play.

 

“Quills,” produced by Luna Theater Company, runs through Nov. 15 at the company’s space to the rear of the Church of the Crucifixion, on Eighth Street between South and Bainbridge. 215-704-0033 or www.lunatheater.org. Audience members must be 18 years or older.

 

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