Review: Max and Louie's Daring 'Quills' Explores Sexuality and Censorship
“Quills,” Doug Wright’s daring and powerful play about Marquis de Sade, burrows into the wasteland of human sexuality where sexual aberrations are as natural as first kisses, and how a society responds with censorship to repress behavior that doesn’t fit into the nice little package we call, “acceptable sexuality.” How much is too much and where do we draw the line? Like the judge who famously said he didn’t know the definition of pornography but he knew it when he saw it, you will hear enough of de Sade’s writings to question whether freedom of speech is worth blanket protection; maybe in Marquis’ case censorship is a good thing. “Quills,” the Max and Louie production currently playing, will help you not decide that very thing.
For a strong proponent of free speech to have doubts is a testament to author Doug Wright’s fierce script, who manages to elicit laughs amid tales and images both vile and horrific. The play is uncomfortable, but so is its subject. The story is hung on a skeleton of facts—de Sade did spend 32 years of his life in prison and he did reside for 13 of those years at Charenton asylum outside of Paris—but those bare bones are richly (and horrifyingly) embellished with Wright’s inventive fiction. The show is at its heart a metaphor; you can crush the man, but you can’t stop the message.
De Sade’s image has been softened by time, and some of the writings seem pretty tame by today’s comparison, but much of it is depravity in anyone’s book. We are not talking about adult play dates with gentle spankings here. De Sade held prostitutes as prisoners and forced them into his perverted games. In modern parlance, he was one freaky dude.
Ted Gregory gives a fearless performance as the Marquis, incarcerated in an asylum in the late 1700s to stop his incendiary writings and controlled by a head doctor (played in reserved fashion by David Wassilak), who himself has a penchant for torture. He isn’t unlike de Sade; The doctor is perfectly happy to inflict pain on prisoners in the name of rehabilitation, but for de Sade to inflict pain as a means towards sexual gratification, that’s debauchery. Never mind their results are, more or less, the same.
Antonio Rodriguez is the kindly priest charged with overseeing the Marquis’ imprisonment, who, in a fit of humanitarian foresight, allows the Marquis to keep his writing materials. When his jailhouse writings become public, it causes an uproar, and results in increased and sometimes violent efforts to stop de Sade’s poisoned pen. Rodriguez descends into a world of blood lust madness.
Stacie Knock, who plays de Sade’s wife, Madame de Marquise, is a woman for whom every moment in life is a grand, dramatic scene, and where a simple line is delivered as big as Scarlett O’Hara vowing to “never go hungry again.” It would have required just such an over-sized personality to be married to the Marquis. Charlie Barron is a slimy architect with the affected, foppish mannerisms of French high-society (but he too will descend into a kind of sexual debauchery), and there’s good work from Caitlin Mickey, especially as a sweet and innocent laundress who gets caught up in the Marquis’ weird world. Director Brooke Edwards keeps the show moving and has clearly made and encouraged bold choices, and the show plays out nicely on Dunsi Dai’s stone-walled set.
You get the sense that de Sade’s oppressors are titillated by his writings. Even as they suppress the Marquis’ urges, they are suppressing their own, and as they try to destroy de Sade, they themselves are destroyed. But no matter the method or punishment, de Sade will not be silenced—he is as compelled to write his filth as he is to breathe. Take his pen, he will write in blood; take his paper, he will write on his bed sheet; take his hands; he will dictate. Cut out his tongue, and he will still think.
“Quills” continues through Aug. 17, in the Wool Studio Theatre on the JCCA campus. For information and reservations, visit the Max and Louie website.