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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
I was out of town when Quills had its New York Premiere at New York Theater Workshop, (best known as the launching pad for Rent ), so I've anticipated its arrival at the Unicorn Theater all summer. My anticipation was underscored by the fact that it was to be directed by the same Richard Corley, whose terrific production of Tony Kushner's The Illusion several seasons ago, made me totally forget the claustrophobic atmosphere and stifling heat in the old Unicorn. Now that the play has settled in for a three week run I can report that my anticipation was well founded. Wright's play is an unforgettable mix of mind expanding drama and comedy and Richard Corley has orchestrated it into an unforgettable theatrical experience.
As anyone who's read the advance news stories and ads for Quills or listened to the BTF's box office recording knows the play about the notorious Marquis de Sade is not for those whose sensibilities recoil at violence, nudity or sexually explicit action or language. This is, after all, the man whose name inspired the term sado-masochism. This is also the Marquis whose indictments about his censors and persecutors will etch themselves in your memory, long after this production has run its course.
While Quills delivers on all the pre-announced elements and is about depravity it is not a depraved play. What it does do (successfully so) is to rouse the audience into being genuinely moved, to leave the theater full of questions about the perseverance of the human spirit and why art, morality and freedom of expression are as much hot button issues today as they were in 1807. The sensational content and ripe-for-discussion underpinnings aside, Quills is also sensationally entertaining--the razor-sharp dialogue is remarkably full of humor, and the six member cast brilliantly gets into the punched-up and macabre spirit of French Grand Guignol theater of the late nineteenth century. Add to this strikingly original production values, and it's fair to say that theater that doesn't get much better--whether summer stock, regional, on or off-Broadway.
To summarize the dramatic events: The time is 1807, an era of Napoleonic conservatism. The Marquis de Sade, whose notorious pornographic writings (which have ruled his life as well as his quill pen) has been incarcerated by Napoleon in the Charenton Asylum. Imprisonment notwithstanding, his crimes of the pen continue to haunt his wife, Renee Pelagie (Jolyn Unruh) who to end her social ostracism demands that the new director of the asylum, Doctor Royer-Collard (Lawrence Bayles) put a stop to her husband's writings. The doctor has an out-of-control spouse of his own, (in her case, the crime is unfaithfulness). He is therefore willing to do whatever it takes to restrain de Sade's quill in exchange for the Marquisa's financial support (much of which he plans to divert to the home he is building in hopes of keeping his wife at his side). To do so he pressures the man in charge of the marquis, Abbe de Coulmier (Jonathan Uffelman), to keep his charge in check. The Abbe is the almost good-guy in the dramatic arc. Revolted as he is by de Sade's writings and beliefs, he feels he can reach him with compassion. But Doctor Royer-Collard and, indirectly, the Marquisa, prevail. The increasingly harsh actions against de Sade that follow are accompanied by his equally more intense and insane measures to keep his words flowing. When he is denied paper, he writes on his clothes; when he is denied ink, he writes with his own blood.
Some specifics about the actors: Jeremy Davidson, plays the Marquis with passion and dimension that take your breath away. Lawrence Bayles is powerfully assured and believable as the self-serving Royer-Collard. Jolyn Unruh is wickedly amusing as the Marquisa. The scene in which she metamorphoses from shamed wife of a shameful husband to happy widow of a "monster martyr" and the Doctor agrees to publish "one limited edition of his work" is both hilarious and convincing.
Jonathan Uffelman perfectly captures the conflicted Abbe de Coulmier. Julia Dion and Matthew Miller manage dual roles with aplomb. Dion is especially effective in her main part as the asylum servant who trades her kisses for pages of the Marquis' stories which she reads to her blind mother. Miller is wonderfully amusing as a slyly effete architect. Having seen four of this talented group of actors in the Unicorn's previous production, Wilder, Wilder , I feel safe in saying these are young actors with great range and assured futures in the theater.
If the brief plot summary sounds as if Quills makes a case for encouraging everyone to act out their darkest sexual instincts and relieving the artist of any responsibility for the effect of his work on others, it isn't. This Marquis is literally destroyed piece by piece, but he is not a hero. You are more shocked by his excesses than genuinely moved to like him. All his tormentors do horrible things, but not all are unmitigatingly horrible. The things he write are incendiary, but while persecution can serve as a hose to put out one fire, it can often fan an unquenchable new flame. To quote the words on the fliers the mad Marquis showers on us as take-home reminders at the end of the play: "Fanaticism in me is the product of the persecutions I have endured from my tyrants. The longer they continue their vexations, the deeper they root my principles in my heart."
There are many other noteworthy quotes and hit-home statements (i.e."let the patients lose--let them now live by their maxims"). The dialogue, especially the discussions between the Marquis and the Abbe, is pungent with ideas. Like everything in this play it is also very much about language.
Besides the splendid cast, Director Corley has with the help of an inspired production team created an environment that takes full advantage of the Unicorn's adaptability for moving actors throughout the theater. This team includes Emmett Aiello ( sets), Daryl A. Stone (costumes), Brian Aldous (lighting) and Shawn W. St. John (sound).
While the BTF season at the Main Stage has been a less than resounding success, both this and the previous Unicorn productions of Wilder, Wilder, (see our review ) fulfill this other stage's mission of stimulating, avante-garde theater. Here's hoping that next year both stages at this venerable Berkshire theater institution will reverse that ratio.