Cotuit Center for the Arts Presents “Quills”

October 12, 2011

“Quills” is thoughtful, wickedly funny, beautifully written, and professionally presented by the Cotuit Center for the Arts. Directed by Mary Arnault, the acting, the sets, the costumes, the lighting and the sensitivity of this production are exemplary.

Doug Wright, the author of “Quills,” wrote that art is “innately subversive,” that art, including writing, must be used to challenge the status quo. His Marquis de Sade is driven to write, even when his writing implements, his quills and more, are taken from him, in brutal acts of censorship, and, in the end, his art triumphs, changing the status quo.

The play, at the arts center through October 23, is only loosely based on the life (and death) of the Marquis de Sade. The people in it are real, but the specific actions presented are metaphorical imaginations by the playwright. The play is no less intriguing as fiction, and it may encourage those who see it to learn a little more about the real life of the man who gave us the word “sadism” and to explore the issues related to artistic censorship a little more deeply. The failure of censorship is not without tragic repercussions in this play. As in life, issues in this play are multidimensional, not just black and white.

It is a dark comedy, written with a keen ear for the expressiveness of language, and the complexity of human nature. Yes, there is nudity, excruciatingly painful deaths, tales of sexual perversion, but no more difficult to watch than a typical evening on television, and much more artistically presented. (Personally, I felt more uncomfortable watching the gang rape scene in “Man of LaMancha.”) Ms. Arnault brings out all of the humor in the language, while maintaining a respect for the serious issues addressed in this play.

“Quills” takes place in the Charenton Asylum in Paris in the year 1807. The Marquis de Sade (John Williams) has been imprisoned there for his infamous pornographic—and sadistic—writings. Doctor Royer-Collard (Christopher Cooley), the chief physician, is approached by Renée Pélagie (Janet Constable Preston), the marquis’ wife, who has been scorned by fellow churchgoers as “Satan’s bride.”

Janet Constable Preston as Renée Pélagie and Christopher Cooley as Doctor Royer-Collard. Photo by Alan Trugman, Cotuit Center for the Arts.

When she left the church, “the very pew that I had sullied with my behind was ripped from the church and burned.” Her purpose is to make sure her husband never embarrasses her or her family again. In listing his faults, though, the worst of his tricks was that “he made me love him.” And that is one of the “problems” with the marquis. His writings and his actions may be degenerate and despicable, but he is charming, in his own way, and people just cannot get enough of his novels and stories.

For reasons that have nothing to do with the marquis or his wife, the doctor agrees to help. But his plan, executed through the kind-hearted Abbé de Coulmier (Troy Davies), who has been trying to rehabilitate the marquis, strays from its original intent.

Mr. Cooley is wonderful as the corrupt, manipulating, and pompous doctor, delivering his lines with a solid understanding of this character, humor, and appropriately wild-eyed expressiveness. His interactions with Ms. Preston, who has an equal gift for conveying the preposterousness of her character, are particularly well done. Like Mr. Cooley, Ms. Preston adds just the right touch of wittiness and absurdity to her character.

John Williams as the Marquis de Sade. Photo by Alan Trugman.

Mr. Williams, in the challenging role of the marquis, is mesmerizing as he reads his latest ribald tales, his voice drawing you in. Perhaps his is the voice of a crazed madman. Perhaps it is the voice of an eloquent and inspired writer. Likely it is both, as the marquis is a complex character, and Mr. Williams brings that out well. He also seems quite at ease acting in the nude, and the audience was similarly accepting.

Troy Davies as the Abbé de Coulmier. Photo by Alan Trugman.

The abbé, who had been giving the marquis paper and quills and encouraging him to write softer stuff for his readers and for his own sanity, is suddenly asked to change his tactics. Mr. Davies conveys the conflicted nature of his character well, as he is asked to take increasing brutal measures to prevent the marquis from inflicting his stories on the public. The abbé would not have chosen this course of action, but feels compelled to obey, given the highly immoral nature of the marquis’ utterances and the reality of life in the asylum.

For all of the scorn heaped on the marquis’ writings by the authorities, there was plenty of public adulation. Madeleine Leclerc (Emily Hamilton), the sweet and innocent 16-year-old seamstress at the asylum, visits the marquis regularly, even exchanging kisses for pages of his latest novel that she can bring home and read to her blind mother, a laundress for the asylum.

Explaining how they could admire such depraved writing, she says, “If we weren’t such bad women on the page, we couldn’t be such good women in life.” The appeal of pornography, sexual violence and murder in books and theater is an interesting topic in itself; as Madeleine and the CCftA’s program point out, we have a fascination for the horrifying.

Ms. Hamilton gives Madeleine a good balance of virtue and literary lust, retaining a pureness of character. She shows her versatility by taking on a second role as the doctor’s wife, Madame Royer-Collard, aptly described in the program as “a woman of considerable appetites.”

Ricky Bourgeois plays an architect hired by the doctor, and two other minor characters.

The set, designed by Andrew Arnault, is exceptional, its cold stone prison walls set off at interesting angles that allow the single set to serve several purposes. There are also cleverly hidden elements of the set that allow dramatic and humorous moments in the unfolding of the tale. The lighting design, by Greg Hamm, is exceptional, particularly when it is used to show how the marquis manages to write after his quills are taken away.

Costumes, designed by Alan Trugman and executed by Cindy Parker and a team of eight other skilled costume makers, are elaborate and authentic, capturing the essence of the era.

Due to graphic language and nudity, no one under 18 is permitted to attend. But for the others, “Quills” is a very entertaining and thought-provoking evening of good theater.

“Quills” is at the Cotuit Center for the Arts Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 2 PM through October 23. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, $15 for members, and $10 for students (18 or older). For more information and tickets, visit www.artsonthecape.org or call 508-428-0669.

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