BWW Reviews: Austin's Different Stages Dips Their QUILLS Into a Thrilling Historical Comedy
Oscar Wilde once said, "A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament." Indeed, it is the "unique temperament" of the Marquis de Sade which is on display in Different Stages' outstanding production of Quills, written by Doug Wright.
With Quills, Wright explores themes of expression, persecution, and censorship though a satiric piece of historical fiction. Here, he gives us an account of the Marquis's imprisonment in the Charenton Asylum in France, having been declared insane after his publication of several novels which mix pornography with social commentary (The real Marquis was imprisoned for his personal sexual misconducts, but that's neither here nor there). Though the asylum's kindly priest, the Abbe de Coulmier, first allows the Marquis to continue writing as a therapeutic exercise, he and the asylum's doctor decide to rend the quill away from the Marquis after discovering his writings are just as distasteful as ever. But of course, the cunning Marquis takes his punishment as a challenge rather than deterrent, and the writing continues, making the audience wonder if he's merely an insane sadist (a term inspired by the Marquis de Sade himself) or the patron saint of self-expression and the freedom of speech.
The text itself is an unusual mish-mosh of comedy, perversity, horror, camp, and drama, unlike the much more serious and dramatic film version also written by Wright. Despite the sometimes abrupt turns in the tone of the text, Director Norman Blumensaadt creates a fluid and cohesive piece of theater. Each and every moment-whether it be comedic, horrific, or dramatic-rings true and evokes the desired response from the audience, though the more over-the-top moments of humor are certainly the most memorable. And despite dividing the intimate City Theatre stage into two smaller playing space of the Marquis's cell and the doctor's office, the action moves effortlessly and the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere serves the play well.
Blumensaadt's creative team is also worthy of note. Ann Marie Gordon's set is simple but effective as it gives us glimmers and hints at the dark, cold asylum. Ann Ford's costumes are full of exquisite details. The Marquis's costume from Act I is stunning, as are the period costumes worn by his wife, Renee Pelagie. But it is the lighting design by Patrick Anthony that is the largest stand out of the production's technical artistry. His lighting is moody, murky, and gloomy as it casts imposing shadows across Gordon's set.
Still, it is the cast that deserves the most praise. Melissa Vogt-Patterson gives the character of Madeleine, the asylum's young laundress whom the Marquis wishes to seduce, an earthy quality with a touch of virginal innocence. Jean Budney makes the most of her brief stage time as the Marquis's wife, Renee, by stealing every scene she's in. She engages in some over-the-top hysterics as she explores the plight of a former socialite now labeled "Satan's bride," and though her approach might be out of place in any other play, it fits right in here, making her a clear audience favorite. Travis Bedard gives a solid turn as Doctor Royer-Collard, a conniving and devious man whose most famous inmate threatens to destroy his career. I must applaud Mr. Bedard for allowing Doctor Royer-Collard to show any sort of emotional response to his situation, something that Michael Caine refused to do in the film version.
But the greatest standouts of Quills are its two leading men: Joe Hartman as the Abbe de Coulmier and Craig Kanne as the Marquis de Sade. Hartman, last seen in The City Theatre's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, is fantastic as the caring, innocent, and naïve priest. You can see the taxing pain in his eyes every time he has to confront and punish the Marquis, and his journey throughout the play is both fun to watch and terrifying to see.
However, despite the brilliance of his co-stars, Craig Kanne easily eclipses theM. Granted, Wright give the Marquis the best lines in his play (which I refuse to print in small part because of their risqué nature and in large part because I don't want to spoil the fun), but it is Kanne's fearless performance that brings the character to life. His Marquis is equal parts dirty old man and stubborn advocate of the arts and freedom of speech with a few dashes of danger, mystery, and madness. Coupled with his charming demeanor and harmless appearance, Kanne turns the Marquis into a captivating puzzle you want to solve but know you never will. Indeed, you will leave the theater with more questions about the illusive Marquis than answers, and that, I presume, is the goal.