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Quills
by Doug Wright
Directed by Brooke Edwards
Max & Louie Productions
August 2, 2014

Ted Gregory Photo by John Lamb Max and Louie Productions

Ted Gregory
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

It may seem strange, at first thought, that when looking to make a statement about artistic expression vs. censorship, playwright Doug Wright chose as his subject one of the most incendiary figures in the history of world literature.  French aristocrat and writer the Marquis de Sade lived and wrote in a manner that sparked much controversy, and the literary value of his prurient writings is still debated to this day.  Wright could easily have written a more modern story about censorship, avoiding the association with the controversial Sade.  Still, after seeing Max & Louie Productions’ impeccably staged production of Wright’s Quills, it becomes more clear why Wright chose to convey his message in this manner. It’s a story of extremes–of how the extreme desire to suppress the extreme ideas of another person can often bring out the most extreme and unsavory aspects of one’s own human nature. Expertly acted and presented, this production conveys its ideas clearly and memorably.

The story here is more symbolic than factual.  While the basic facts of Sade’s imprisonment at Charenton Asylum are true, the actual situation portrayed here is Wright’s invention. When Sade’s estranged wife Reenee Pelagie (Stacie Knock) is increasingly shunned by society because of her association with the notorious Marquis, she appeals to the asylum’s newly appointed director, Doctor Royer-Collard (David Wassilak) to stop her husband’s incessant and inflammatory writing, offering generous financial compensation as incentive.  The doctor, renowned for his commitment to traditional morality and his preference for more brutal methods of curbing the behavior of his patients, enlists the more benevolent Abbe de Coulmier (Antonio Rodriguez) in implementing his plans to silence the Marquis.  Meanwhile, Sade (Ted Gregory) has been enjoying relatively lenient treatment, indulging in his literary pursuits in his well-appointed cell, sipping wine and sharing his bawdy stories with the asylum’s kind-hearted seamstress, Madeleine Leclerc (Caitlin Mickey), for whom the Abbe harbors an attraction.  Through various inducements, the doctor uses the Abbe’s genuine concern about the well-being of the patients to induce him into more and more extreme methods of enforcing the ban on the Marquis’s writing, all the while Sade continues to seek to express his ideas with increasingly brutal consequences. There’s also a subplot about the doctor’s engaging an architect (Charlie Barron) to design a palatial home for his not quite virtuous wife (also Mickey), more as a way to keep her out of the public spotlight and save his own reputation than for her benefit.

There are several messages in this play, with the central one being that externally imposed censorship of art is not only bad–it doesn’t actually work in the long run, and the subject of the censorship often becomes much more well-known than he would have been (as echoed by Wright in the audience talk-back after the show). Also, even if the works are stopped, the thoughts behind them continue, and can only grow more and more insidious. Morality, for people like the doctor, becomes as Sade declares “a convenience”, and a means with which to exercise control. The Abbe becomes something of a surrogate for the audience, as his own struggles with maintaining his own principles in the face of pressure reflect the modern struggle to find balance between artistic expression, societal expectations and personal integrity.  Amid characters like the amoral Sade and the conflicted Abbe, the real villain here is the doctor, who seeks to further his own agenda while keeping his own hands “clean”, and more damage is done from the efforts to suppress the Marquis’s writings than had been done when he had been provided all the paper and quills he needed.

Wright’s script is masterfully written, with sharp dialogue, well drawn characters and even some fantastical elements thrown in for good measure, and director Brooke Wright’s production expresses the script as ideally as I can imagine.  With strong technical aspects such as Cyndi Lohrmann’s richly appointed costumes, Dunsi Dai’s appropriately atmospheric set, and Maureen Berry’s expert lighting design, the story comes to vivid life as the mood shifts from a more genteel, light start to a noticeably darker, more primal and horrific atmosphere as the play continues. The storytelling is enhanced especially in the remarkable performances of the uniformly excellent cast, with Gregory as Sade and Rodriguez as the Abbe being the standouts.  I’ve seen Rodriguez in many shows around St. Louis, and he’s never been better than he is here, making the struggle between his compassion, the doctor’s directions, and his own personal issues readily apparent.  Gregory is all oily charm as Sade, and regardless about what one may think about his writings, as the efforts to stop his writing become more and more intense,  it’s difficult not to sympathize with him in his increasingly desperate situation. These two are the focal point of this play, although there is not a weak link in this cast. Wassilak is memorable as the steely, unflappable doctor, and Mickey and Barron both shine in dual roles–Mickey as the sweet young seamstress and as the doctor’s lascivious wife, and Barron as the dandified architect and as brutish asylum patient who participates in an ill-fated scheme of Sade’s.

This play isn’t always easy to watch, as situations grow more and more grave and extreme and the outcome is increasingly unsavory.  Still, it’s an intriguing study of the effects of censorship, hypocrisy and morality-as-control, as well as the power of artistic expression. It’s a worthy topic for thought and discussion, and regardless of what one thinks about Sade as a person or as a writer, the extremity of his situation makes for an ideal setting to explore the many angles of this topic. Kudos to Max & Louie Productions for bringing this fascinating play to the St. Louis audience, especially in such a well-crafted production.  In addition to entertaining, art can instruct, anger, provoke, inspire and inform; and this play manages to do all of those things in the course of an evening. While it’s  not for all audiences (leave the kids at home), it’s a remarkable theatrical achievement.

Antonio Rodriguez, David Wassilak Photo by John Lamb Max  & Louie Productions

Antonio Rodriguez, David Wassilak
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

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