Story: At the Charenton asylum in France in 1807, the most notorious inmate is Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, an aristocrat better known as the Marquis de Sade. He was born in 1740 and spent 32 years in various prisons before dying in 1814 at Charenton, where he was sent in 1801.
De Sade was a patrician, a soldier, a revolutionary politician and a writer with an insatiable thirst for salacious topics. His stories were immersed in sex and violence, often mingling the two subjects together, for which his name contributed to the English language with the word sadist and derivative variations.
That writing ultimately resulted in his incarceration, first in prison and later in the Charenton insane asylum. A new administrator at Charenton, Dr. Royer-Collard, is intent on silencing de Sade’s decadent writings to impress everyone with his own ability to administrate difficult people.
Despite limiting de Sade’s access to ink, pen and paper, Royer-Collard finds that his inmate is ingenious at finding various ‘quills’ with which to etch his libertine thoughts. Preying on the vulnerability of an idealistic young priest, the Abbe de Coulmier, Royer-Collard twists the screws, literally and metaphorically, on de Sade to silence his voice and cut off his supply of pornography to a ready and willing audience throughout France.
Highlights: Playwright Doug Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for his 2004 work, I Am My Own Wife, wrote this intriguing, beguiling, two-act play that premiered at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, DC in 1995.
A young assistant costume designer and dresser for that production named Brooke Edwards (later one of the founders of The Orange Girls troupe) directs the splendid rendition being performed by Max & Louie Productions in its St. Louis premiere. It’s guaranteed to make an audience think.
Other Info: Wright has an impressive resume, having penned Hands on a Hardbody and Grey Gardens in addition to the two aforementioned works. He also adapted Quills into a screenplay for the 2000 film version that starred Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Michael Caine.
He’s a skilled wordsmith, as evidenced by the witty, provocative dialogue which permeates Quills throughout its two acts and two hours, 45 minutes running time. Oddly enough, though, Quills’ pacing suffers from two false ends to the first act and at least three faux finales, which have the effect of giving the production a spastic, lurching sense that chops momentum.
The denouement, in particular, leaves one with the feeling that Wright kept adding on scenes as afterthoughts, rather than sit back and then rewrite the work’s final 15 minutes. Perplexing, given his pedigree and skill set.
Beyond debate, though, are several exhilarating performances culled by Edwards from her cast to pour additional intoxication into Wright’s already heady script. Chief among these are superior turns by Charlie Barron in a supporting role and Ted Gregory as the infamous de Sade.
Barron’s precise and prissy Monsieur Prouix, a delicate architect hired by Royer-Collard to remodel his expansive home, is completely captivating as he lavishes the pompous Royer-Collard with undeserved praise. He’s equally amusing as Prouix attempts to satisfy the lustful appetite of the administrator's much younger wife, a woman who cares only about her own carnal desires.
Another woman with clear ideas of self-satisfaction is de Sade’s long-suffering wife, Renee Pelagie. Her character ushers in both the first and second acts in a winning interpretation by Stacie Knock, who worries more about missed tea party invitations than any harm that may befall her straying husband.
At the core of the work, though, are the characters of de Sade and the young Abbe. Gregory immerses himself into the decadent role of the writer with both relish and revelation, infusing de Sade’s insatiable demand for describing sexual escapades with a sharp wit as well for retorting the young priest’s admonitions. He savors each word like vintage wine, cackling in ecstasy even while his lot in life becomes increasingly imperiled.
Rodriguez demonstrates the Abbe’s devotion to the traditional morals of the time, even if he can’t escape the character’s annoying habit of listening to de Sade or Royer-Collard rather than simply walking away, both from their words and from the treachery they inflict upon him.
David Wassilak plays the doctor as prim and proper as well as a political pragmatist more interested in material gains and his reputation than any doctrinal dogma he’s sworn to uphold. Like nearly all of the characters in Wright’s drama, he fares poorly in the long run.
As the wide-eyed and impressionable maid Madeleine Leclerc as well as the devious Mrs. Royer-Collard, Caitlin Mickey smartly imparts both the simple life of a French peasant who squeals in delight at de Sade’s sordid prose and the excesses of the aristocracy, in equally impressive fashion.
Dunsi Dai’s two-tiered set allows for a close-up look at de Sade’s increasingly squalid quarters in front as effectively as the well-appointed surroundings of the doctor’s office in the rear, before an imposing back wall of muted colors that transforms dramatically for a pivotal scene in Act II.
Maureen Berry’s lighting pinpoints crucial scenes with de Sade, while Cyndi Lohrmann’s costumes vary from the resplendent attire of the upper class to the grimy togs of Madeleine and the inmates. Jenny Smith provides judiciously selected props and Amanda Werre adds sound design. The head-turning program cover is designed by Marjorie Williamson.
Wright’s work looks pointedly at issues of censorship (from left and right, as he noted in a Ladue News interview), definitions of morality and the ever-escalating battle between individuals and society. Through Edwards’ sharp focus and some finely tuned performances, Max & Louie’s Quills is as beguiling and challenging as it is sobering.
Group: Max & Louie Productions
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Drive
Dates: August 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17
Tickets: From $25 to $30; contact 1-800-838-3006 or maxandlouie.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb