All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Words are often considered equivalent to sticks and stones in the minds of people who shrivel from other people’s thoughts or to the powerful or sensitive who would rather impose censorship than to relax their idea of impropriety or shrug off what they construe as verbal offense, which today is a rallying cry for those who crave to dominate others with political correctness.
Words do have power, but how harmful can the most trenchant or potent of them be against weapons that inflict physical injury or damage? All claim to revere the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech, but many are willing to corrupt that first tenet in the Bill of Rights to create a cause or, worse, a trend.
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, universally known as the Marquis de Sade, the man whose name is attached to “sadism,” was a prolific purveyor of words. His prurient, lustful tales that involved indignities and even atrocities of intense sexual escapades outraged France and made civil and religious figures of the royal, revolutionary, and Napoleonic periods believe their best course was to take legal action against this profane villain who corrupted decency and morality with almost every sentence of his salacious, if not all that well-written, tomes.
DeSade abetted authorities’ yen to silence or imprison him by committing acts of sexual assault and similar crimes that brought him frequently to the Bastille. Though a member of the nobility, he, according to what the character deSade says in Doug Wright’s smart and naughty play, “Quills,” was in the Bastille when it was stormed on July 14, 1789 and freed with the other prisoners in spite of his hereditary rank and guilt for a crime the Directory would also abhor and punish by loss of liberty.
“Quills” centers more on deSade’s writing and their vivid rendering of his fantasies than on his overboard sexual practices. By the time Wright’s play begins, Napoleon is emperor, and deSade is confined to a barren cell in the infamous insane asylum of Charenton.
Wright sets his play in 1807, seven years before deSade dies, and in that period, asylum officials, the doctor who runs Charenton and a priest who ministers “humanely” to the afflicted, work to reform deSade, who irrepressibly resists every attempt to keep his thoughts from turning to literature and his literature from finding publication in the wider world.
“Quills” sets two stubborn forces at odds, the libertine deSade, who will find a way to wend his quill, his actual pen and metaphorical body part, against all strictures or preventative measures, and the Charenton authorities who are prickly and have arrows enough in their quiver to counteract deSade’s clever stratagems and try to transform him to their idea of decency and good behavior.
DeSade, to the administration at Charenton, is as dangerous as an inmate addled enough to kill for pleasure and as fit for incarceration as others whose insanity would intrude on everyday life.
Wright provides a different picture. His deSade, already in his late sixties, is a vigorous man mentally and physically. His crafty mind can reason as well as invent the most debauched visions of carnal experience. He is robust and able to thrive in spite of the dank, dreary conditions of the prison and the dreadful diet to which he’s subjected.
From Wright’s depiction, deSade’s incarceration is a travesty, the insidious and moralistic act of a government that enacts and enforces laws that condemn humans for the way they think and write. DeSade’s books will only be bought by people who enjoy or get a thrill from them. They may not reach a mass audience. Even if a reader acts out something is deSade’s books, the author cannot be blamed for someone indulging in fantasy, even a provoked fantasy, any more than a television show can be liable for someone copying an act they see or hear about it, Wright has deSade say he is not writing how-to books.
So where’s the harm? It seems to lie in that amorphous area called ‘public standards’ and regulated by the government. DeSade has the added irritation of the religious hierarchy that holds sway in everyday French life.
In “Quills,” Wright decidedly makes deSade the hero, the victim of cruel and unusual punishment based on something he expresses rather than something he does. He is the ward of moralists who uphold self-righteous positions and who particularly eschew that most offensive of actions to upright and religious beings, consensual sexual activity.
Wright doesn’t give deSade’s opponents many plausible arguments beyond their administering of justice, decency, and God’s will. He does give them arguments they can present ironically or that explain their point of view.
Gregory Scott Campbell’s production of “Quills” for Luna Theater drives one even closer to the side of deSade.
Robb Hutter’s portrayal of the incorrigible libertine is frisky and wily. It has vitality that shows the sharpness of deSade and his unwillingness to give up his provocative pleasures no matter how miserably he is confined or left alone.
You see the creative spark in Hutter’s eyes. Inventiveness shows. He may be captive, locked in a small, dismal, filthy room, but he is the master of his imagination, and he will use it to craft new literary adventures involving the most raw and vicious sex and to outsmart his jailors and “therapists” in a metaphorical chess match that involves wit, ingenuity, and abundant resourcefulness.
Prison doesn’t daunt deSade because his happiness comes from devising and sharing his fantasies.
Yes, he’d like to live some of them out, and he is quite suggestive to both the laundress who comes to collect his soiled linen and the priest who believes he is making headway in leading deSade to God-fearing respectability, but his contentment comes from composition and from bedeviling those who think they have the means to stop it.
Hutter is a delight. Even when Wright’s script calls for deSade to surrender his clothes and appear nude for three quarters of the play, Hutter, like the character he plays, shows no shame or self-consciousness about his nakedness.
I say Hutter draws us more firmly than even Wright contrives towards deSade because the other characters in “Quills” are too staid, lugubrious, or doctrinaire to be sympathetic or even to raise a point that could persuade one to be more agreeable to deSade’s imprisonment or the censorship it involves.
With the exception of Ethan Lipkin as an architect who is tangential to Wright’s plot but has nothing to do with deSade, Campbell’s cast misses the wit inherent in their parts. They play their roles too seriously. There seems to be no contest between deSade and his keepers in terms of wit or even honesty.
Campbell’s actors play their goodness too baldly. You hear their hypocrisy and self-serving motives in Wright’s lines, but no one acts as if or she is an equal to deSade. The showdown is too plain. DeSade will frustrate with his ability to circumvent any restriction Charenton officials impose. The officials, bereft of ingenuity or believing it’s their job to curtail, and not to negotiate or appease, will resort to rules and brutality in an attempt to force deSade to adhere to their notion of reasonable behavior and civility. They know no other recourse and, in doing their good works, they may surpass any of deSade’s sexual escapades in terms of extremism and the desire to hurt and hurt deeply.
Campbell shows us the contrast between deSade and the other characters. What we don’t see is the traits they have in common, that they are rascals trying to tame a rascal, some of them attempting to do so only because it is their job. The priest, at least, has a moral commitment, specious and unworthy of lauding though it might be. But Alan Holmes’s priest, the Abbé de Coulmier, though fine as directed, displays only disappointment, frustration, and anger at deSade. He does not become the strategic adversary Wright gives him the chance to be. In the cat-and-mouse game between Coulmier and deSade, the marquis is always the cat. Holmes’s Coulmier only has scripture and stricture at his service. He does not show the cleverness that would engage deSade and make their stand-off an equal contest for at least some of the time, the time before Coulmier resorts to measures akin to deSade’s imagined fantasies to subdue his prisoner.
Because “Quills” is intellectually engaging, and Hutter always gives you something of interest to see or hear, the Luna production entertains and makes Wright’s points. It would have benefited from more thought to opening up characters like Coulmier, the asylum director, Dr. Royer-Collard, or Madame deSade and giving them fuller, more flexible personalities, personae that might present a real challenge to Hutter’s deSade, than the standard opinion bearers and flat purveyors of exposition they become.
You hear the humor in Royer-Collard’s and Madame deSade’s lines, but it seems accidental. Neither character seems capable of irony or of making a bon mot in Campbell’s production. They are too rigidly good. Even when Madame deSade pilfers her husband’s forcibly amputated penis and genitals, the comic moment seems self-conscious. It’s funny, but not naughty or delightful, because it seems so comme il faut, so planned.
When Hutter is on stage, the Luna production soars. The other characters seem to be diversions that supply background information. Except that Lipkin, as the architect, is adept at weaving a tale and bringing the audience into his plot, the Luna cast seems to have no juices. It’s as if they didn’t think out their complete characters but settled for the literal figures Wright provides in the dialogue. No one is actually inept or unable to fulfill the basics of his or her part, but only Hutter and Lipkin take their characters beyond the page and give them dimension beyond their functional purpose in Wright’s play.
Hutter has a ball as deSade. He almost gambols about his cell. He never shows signs of being worn down or defeated by being institutionalized. His eyes gleam as he foils Coulmier or relates his stories to the audience, the laundress, Madeleine, who revels in each outrageous detail. This is man who is happy with the non-stop productivity of his fertile imagination and his ability to outwit his somber captors.
Stripped of clothing, Hutter’s deSade is not stripped of dignity. He wears defiance and superiority in place of breeches and a doublet. As Coulmier exacts a series of increasingly severe punishments, you never think the abbé is doing what deSade’s situation mandates. You think he’s a weak man and give all of your sympathy and understanding to the marquis.
That is one of the problems with the Luna production. The battle between Coulmier and deSade is never a contest. Despite the result, the marquis clearly wins. Any triumph of Coulmier’s comes from exercising authority and not from wit. It’s pyrrhic because deSade is right in saying he will be the remembered figure, that his literature will be read long after no one recalls Coulmier’s name, and that the priest can only employ might against a physically defenseless prisoner to outmaneuver him. Coulmier, and his boss, Royer-Collard reinforce any disdain people have for government and religious leadership today. They don’t show rectitude. They show fear. They don’t exercise justice. They practice moralism. They don’t have real solutions or genuine logic to stop a man’s creative process. They only have the power, and the machinery, to cow someone to whom those weapons are unavailable. Like many current presidents and prelates, they are pathetic creatures who only have title and authority to cling to.
Campbell shows them as small, frightened men who exude no charm to try to win the audience to their point of view or to make us wonder if there is some reason we should agree with them that deSade is a menace to deserves incarceration, deprivation, and silencing. No wonder we celebrate when Hutter is on stage and deSade dominates a scene.
Alan Holmes is a dour Coulmier. He is forever frowning with furrowed forehead, befuddled over the drubbing he keeps taking from deSade.
Historically, Coulmier is considered a pioneer is mental health, although most of his techniques have been discredited as cruel and ineffective. It seems the priest had a sadistic streak of his own.
Although Coulmier has some witty lines and makes some astute observations in “Quills,” Holmes keeps him hangdog and beleaguered, in constant contemplation and worry about how to end deSade’s ability to conceive and disseminate stories.
At first, Coulmier is the liberal, empathetic therapist. He gives deSade all of the ink and paper he desires. When Royer-Collard shows him the results of deSade’s writings, the priest is dismayed and feels betrayed. Holmes does not display anger. He has instead the look of a child who is disappointed when a parent or teacher does not appreciate or praise something the young person did, said, or made to lovingly please them. He frets.
While everything Holmes does as Coulmier is plausible and consistent, it renders him a definite inferior of deSade. This abbé doesn’t have the equipment or intellectual stamina to win against a sly, determined enemy who has only his stories and the tweaking of authorities to occupy his time or amuse him. A more mature or more wily Coulmier may be preferable. In life, the priest was about the same age as deSade, and a war between two men of experience, education, and talent would be a more entertaining tennis match than Coulmier imposing discipline and deSade finding a way to continue in spite of it.
Mark Knight, as Royer-Collard, the physician in charge of Charenton and, in significant ways, Coulmier’s boss, follows a similar path to Holmes’s. He competently plays his character, but he gives him no shades. His Royer-Collard is all administrative bluster. He expresses pomposity and practices extravagance. There’s a lot of irony to his character, and Doug Wright gives him several delicious lines to show how droll, aware, and candid Royer-Collard can be.
Knight doesn’t play those lines. He says them, of course. They’re included in his part. But the actor is more content to be a Dickensian bureaucrat than an man of taste and variety whose political lot has saddled him with the management of Charenton and the cunning machinations of one Marquis deSade.
Like Coulmier, Royer-Collard should be an equal of sorts to deSade. The taste he shows in ordering a palatial chateau in Charenton, and in describing its furniture, fixtures, and fittings, should translate to the general look and bearing of the character. It doesn’t. Knight plays the doctor as dowdy and bland, someone who was given Charenton because Napoleon’s regime owed him a significant appointment but chose to put him where he would not be noticed and could do the least harm. You don’t see the politesse or the joie de vivre that are in Royer-Collard’s lines. The performance, again plausible and consistent, is too direct. It lacks nuances and a sense of the total man Wright portrays Royer-Collard to be.
Sonja Robson is amusing as Renée Pelagie, also known as the Marquise deSade. She is plaintive and demanding as she hopes out loud her husband’s life ends in time for her to restore a social life that has been relegated to shambles because of the marquis’s reputation.
As with Holmes and Knight, her performance stays on one level, and it is a confusing level. Robson begins each of Pelagie’s scenes in dudgeon high enough to rate as hysteria and end each of them in a calm, businesslike tone, earned by getting Royer-Collard to consent to some abuse of deSade, usually in return for a generous financial contribution to the asylum. Her appearances are almost formulaic, but they lack variety and style.
Wright’s dialogue indicates that Madame deSade is a woman of the world. She comes from nobility and holds an august title. Society may shun her, but she would have the breeding, poise, and cleverness to behave as if she maintains her sangfroid in spite of it.
Robson’s Pelagie goes from whining to outnegotiating Royer-Collard. Her clothes, designed by Millie Hiibel, speak of position, but Robson endows the character with no charm or feminine mystery. Her portrayal is straightforward and within the bounds of Wright’s script, but her Pelagie does not register as a real person, only as a character with a specific purpose.
Robson’s best moment comes when she visits Royer-Collard after Coulmier has ordered that her husband be, in effect, dismembered. DeSade’s various limbs, digits, and appendages lie in little metal boxes on Royer-Collard’s desk. The marquise takes a rather distinct interest in them. Robson displays a slight thrill at being so near remnants of her husband’s person. She is so taken with the anatomical display, she absconds with the box containing deSade’s penis.
The look on Robson’s face in this scene is precious and makes you wonder where texture of this kind was in previous sequences.
Wright gives Madame deSade some of “Quills’s” best line. Robson doesn’t quite waste them. The audience hears them, and Robson gets the laugh. But the lines are delivered without emphasis, even the kind a woman accustomed to saying clever things might employ. They just hang mid-air on the Luna stage and give the audience a chance to respond as they will.
Some dimension would have helped Knight and Robson enhance the entertainment value of their characters. Holmes would have to rethink who Coulmier is to add weight to his character.
Nell Bang-Jensen is an attractive Madeleine. She conveys the curiosity a young woman might in the presence of deSade, especially a young woman who becomes excited by his stories and takes them home at night to read to her blind mother, who enjoys them as well. She, like Holmes, is good at dodging deSade’s attempts to embrace, or even touch, her.
Bang-Jensen’s physical performance is perfect, but her line readings sometimes sound sing-song and would benefit from more of a sense of intent and purpose.
That said, Madeleine is a character we like to see because it means the marquis will be especially lively and boldly flirtatious. Bang-Jensen shows that the laundress is a good friend to the pornographer and a fan. The avid way she responds to deSade’s stories is particularly telling. Madeleine is moral enough to abhor what the marquis does, but she is human enough to forgo propriety and delight in his literature and, often enough, in having him present in her life.
Ethan Lipkin brings a certain foppishness and a good dose of irony to his role as the architect of the home Royer-Collard is building for his wife. He also holds one line for his entire performance, but it a line that puts the character in perspective and allows Lipkin to fulfill a role that exists to show the pride and fatuousness of Royer-Collard.
None of the acting in Luna’s “Quills” is bad or substandard. It’s just too literal and direct. Knight and Robson, in particular, are never given the chance to break free and have fun with their characters. Lipkin manages to give the architect life. Bang-Jensen has instances of versatility as Madeleine.
However limited the performances other than Hutter’s and Lipkin’s are, the cast lets its audience appreciate “Quills” and see its excellent commentary about times that our more Puritan that ours (while acknowledging that our times are plagued by rigidity and political correctness). In the long run, Campbell’s production is satisfying because it clearly shows Wright’s theme and provokes thought about what we censor and whom we imprison for spite rather than out of necessity. The production works in the long run because Holmes’s Coulmier is well played in its way, and Knight and Robson get the laughs inherent in Wright’s lines. The restrictive tone of the show did preclude enjoyment from it. “Quills” is a fine play and makes its points amusingly, even in an austere production.
The lines of Dirk Durossette’s set fit in well with the arches in the Luna Theater’s ceiling, which was, in another incarnation, part of a church. The stone dungeon-like walls Durossette builds seems to be at one with the Luna’s general architecture.
Durossette and lighting designer Ben Levan combine for some wonderful images, particularly the writing on deSade’s cell walls and on the sheets he scribbles on with own blood after Coulmier denies the marquis paper and writing implements.
Millie Hiibel’s costumes are right for their individual characters and show both style and social station.
“Quills” runs though Saturday, November 15, at Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th Street (8th and Kater), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets range from $25 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-704-0033 or by visiting www.lunatheater.org.