The Anatomy of Disgust

Quills

Eye of the Storm

AS THE NECROPHILE said of his latest date, so I acclaim Eye of the Storm's excellent new production on the Marquis de Sade: "Well worth the dig!"

Pardon me. I have Sadomy on the brain, having seen two fine works on the man in two weeks: Madame de Sade at Mary Worth (CP 4/9) and now Quills at Eye of the Storm. Source of above quip, Quills is a bawdy, bloody fantasy about the Marquis's last days in Charenton Asylum, where he was imprisoned off and on between 1803 and 1814. There, thanks to his wife and his jailer, the perverse old scribe was for a time forbidden paper, quills, and ink--not just censorship but straight-up psychological torture for a writer, especially one as obsessive as Sade.

If the idea of necrophilia gives you goosebumps or offends you, well, good. That's part of this play's modus operandi: to get us to notice the moments when our internal defense sensors go off, and to ponder our reactions. The point isn't that you're a prude if tales of a phallus penetrating a knife wound disgust you, or if seeing a naked man onstage freaks you out. (I blushingly confess to both.) The point is, what do we do with our discomfort/fear/disgust/arousal, and what can we learn from it? That's where the digging comes in.

All this intellectualizing would weigh heavy if it weren't for the show's physical potency, a synthesis of fine costumes (Susan Fick), clever lighting (Michael Murnane) and sound design (Peter John Still), a simple but evocative set (Dean Holzman), and accomplished comic acting under Casey Stangl's sure direction. In the first half, timing was so good that we sounded like one of those TV sitcom audiences, laughing readily in all the right places. The show's fulcrum is Stephen D'Ambrose as Sade, a rather lovable freak who turns out to be as courageous as he is deviant. D'Ambrose is marvelous: His face and voice are hyper-expressive as he recites his naughty stories, and his manner is provocatively androgynous. Overall, we don't trust him--but we completely trust him to be himself.

Two amusing, highly loaded relationships stoke
the first act: Sade's affectionate friend-
ship with a seam-
stress (Larissa Paige Kokernot) and his oddly respectful bond with the
monk who tries to reform him (Charles Schuminski). Kokernot (thus far best known as the hooker-from-Chaska in Fargo) does her usual smart, bubbly work here. And while Schuminski's readings are rather stiff (my friend thought he talked like George Bush), somehow he sounds just right. Barbara Kingsley is magnetic as Sade's flighty, social-climbing wife. And as the jailer who extorts from her in exchange for silencing Sade, Steve Hendrickson suggests layers of genteel evil (though he's often upstaged by the more extroverted Kingsley).

The script's latter half is weaker: too fragmented and too long. Kokernot is dragged into an unnecessary subplot as the jailer's wife, who's banging her interior decorator (Matt Sciple). Themes also take a predictable turn toward the monk's rotting heart, and Schuminski doesn't quite make the stretch. The script underlines obvious dichotomies too strenuously (mainly, the symbiotic relationship between good and evil), and drags out Sade's death, um, piecemeal, until I wanted to shout, "I get it already!"

Still, I enjoyed this inventive production tremendously. Quills provides visual poetry, literally and figuratively, as Sade uses whatever, and I mean whatever, he can, to supplant his confiscated writing implements. We're reminded that, with all their airy elusiveness, ideas are viruses that are far more uncontrollable than people. That's why writers tend to rub dictators wrong: They deal in the uncontainable. And as Sade and his captors learned the hard way, censorship tends to backfire: Oppression has only served to preserve and legitimize Sade's writing. That's the joke of it all (brilliantly expressed through a metaphor at play's end that I won't give away): Once let loose, an idea is damned near impossible to kill, no matter how ugly, smelly, or flimsy. As Sade knew, in both sex and literature, the forbidden fruit always looks sweetest--even if all it is is forbidden.

Quills runs at the Loring Playhouse through May 17. Tickets cost $12/$14. Call 332-1619.

 
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