Election Section

Shotgun’s “Quills” Is A Long, Sadistic Evening

By BETSY HUNTONSpecial to the Planet
Friday June 25, 2004

Playwright Doug Wright, who won this year’s Tony, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his current Broadway hit, “I Am My Own Wife,” apparently has learned a lot about playwriting in the years since he wrote the play, which is currently being perf ormed at the Julia Morgan Theatre. 

At two hours and forty minutes, Shotgun Players’ production of “Quills” may require more time than some of us would care to spend with this version of the Marquis de Sade’s carryings on. 

One of the highest points of th is production is Richard Louis James’ chilling portrayal of the 18th century Frenchman whose name has come to define the term “sadism.” James gives a totally believable portrayal of the brilliant and hopelessly distorted Marquis: a man whose genius was devoted to the creation of a body of writing which is, even now, horrendous. 

De Sade’s behavior caused him to spend more than 29 years in first, a prison, then—after a break caused by the French Revolution—an insane asylum, where he finished out his life. Wright’s play is set in the Charenton Insane Asylum, where de Sade is maintained in relative comfort at the expense of his wife’s bribery of the sleazy director, Dr. Royer-Collard (a believable David Cramer). The wife’s motivation is simple; she wants him locked away in the asylum and is quite prepared to pay to keep him there.  

It is with the entrance of the very competent Judy Phillips, who plays Madame deSade, that the question of the play’s direction arises. Phillips’ role is performed with an extrav agant artificiality which is basically comic in style. However, both the dialogue and the plot lack humor. (In all fairness, it should be admitted that there were a few audience members who did find material to laugh about from time to time.) 

What appear s to be going on is a rather erratic attempt to introduce elements of the “Grande Guignol” into the production. Those popular, wildly exaggerated, Punch and Judy puppet shows wallowed in over-done guillotines and such like. The idea behind the otherwise b ewildering “horror film” sound effects in this production is apparently an effort to graft some of the Grande Guignol appeal onto Wright’s text.  

A (perhaps “the”) major theme in the play is the struggle faced by the idealistic young priest, Abbe de Coulmier (touchingly played by Taylor Valentine), who is caught between the disreputable Dr. Royer-Collard, and the evil de Sade. The Abbe is the immediate contact with de Sade and is responsible for the actual enforcement of restrictions upon his behavior. 

As the play progresses, de Sade finds increasingly disgusting, if increasingly ingenious, ways of doing his writing (he has long established ways of smuggling his works out of his cell with the aid of an earthy laundress well played by Lisa Jenai Hernande z). When they take away his quills and paper, he writes in blood on his clothes. When he is stripped naked, he writes in feces upon his cell’s walls. As de Sade beats each move, the Abbe becomes increasingly obsessed: his spirituality seeming to fail alon g with his sanity. 

When Wright wrote the script for the film “Quills,” he didn’t use the play’s second act (there doesn’t seem to be any information readily available to determine whether this was really his own idea or whether some more sensible type ha d to intervene). There could be an idea there worth considering. 

Actually, in this production, the second act appeared to move better than did the first. However, the ending was remarkable in that there were a series of short scenes, each of which seemed to carry all the marks of a conclusion. And then, Oops! Here comes another one. 

It was a rather long evening. 


“Quills” is at the Julia Morgan Theater, Thurs. through Sat. at 8 p.m., and Sun at 7 p.m. to July 3. Free admission with pass-the-hat donation after the show. For reservations call 704-8210. www.shotgunplayers.org