Everyone from the existentialists to the Freudians has gotten in bed with the Marquis de Sade. Susan Sontag framed him as an exemplar of transgression, for instance, while Andrea Dworkin condemned him as a woman hater. They might well both be right. De Sade's lasting contribution, of course, is his literary pornography, and Doug Wright's Quills renders his story one of art and repression. (It should probably surprise no one that Wright is in favor of the former and against the latter.)
The action opens in the Charenton asylum, where the Marquis (Andy Chambers) is using his imprisonment to pursue a little creative writing—you know, get some things off his chest. This is bad news for nuthouse honcho Dr. Royer-Collard (Joel Raney), who has entered into a deal with de Sade's disgraced wife (Zoe Benston): If the doc can manage to shut up the Marquis, she'll contribute money to the asylum. (Royer-Collard intends to embezzle from this slush fund to build a lavish chateau for his own wife.)
If you really felt sorry for me, you'd let me whip your eyelids with a belt
It seems simple enough to silence a guy you have under lock and key, but de Sade's primary keeper, Abbe de Coulmier (J.D. Henriksen), is a gracious man of the cloth who prefers the powers of persuasion to the array of torture devices at his disposal. Some of the best scenes in the first act depict the interplay between de Sade and the Abbe, with Henriksen playing the straight man to Chambers's insinuating perv. De Sade peppers the Abbe with terms of endearment, everything from "kumquat" to "poodle."
Meanwhile, de Sade's tales of degradation and sexual outrage keep on coming. When de Coulmier confiscates de Sade's quills and parchment, the prisoner writes a story in blood on his clothes. After he's stripped naked (the gutsy Chambers plays a good portion of the show in the nude), he scribbles on the walls in his own shit. Eventually he whispers a yarn through a crack in the wall; when it makes the rounds of the asylum's madmen, a riot ensues. Turns out there really is a connection between pornography and violence.
The remainder of the second act chronicles de Coulmier's increasing bloodlust in trying to permanently silence de Sade. Becoming gradually more extreme—and more inured to his own extremity—the Abbe begins to cut the Marquis to pieces.
There's a lesson here about the cruelty that's inherent in stifling expression. Yet you're likely going to walk away from this Theatre Pro Rata production without really finding it. (Fans of the script—or mature individuals in need of a little more pain—might refer to the 2000 film version, starring Geoffrey Rush.) Raney is effective as the craven administrator, and Benston applies a sharp mercenary tone. But Henriksen fails to convey the way that the Abbe absorbs both de Sade's abusive streak and the exhilarating rush that accompanies it. And Chambers doesn't entirely suggest the philosopher beneath the pervert. The blood flows, the ladies blush, but it's hard to see the point by the end.
Appearing in repertory with Quills is another Pro Rata show, Feelgood Hits of the '70s, that involves men who won't stop talking. Here, two thirtysomething bachelors (Sam L. Landman and Matthew Glover) hang out in their living room for a little more than an hour and shoot the shit in elaborate and profane detail. Porno, sports bras, the Doobie Brothers, elementary-school grudges—all the transcendent themes of modern living.
It's a pretty wide net these fellows cast, and they caught me: I laughed as much at this show as I have all year. It's a modest project. As Glover says, "I'd be more depressed if I could get anyone to give a shit."
Hey, sometimes not caring is a way of caring. And sometimes you really don't care.