De Sade lite

Stage West presents a lighthearted romp through incest, bestiality, and necrophilia

As long as there have been storytellers with the guts to explore all corners of the human experience, there have been listeners who've insisted--sometimes with the force of the state behind them--that nothing but harm can come from exploring traditionally taboo subjects...especially those that emanate from the dark, moist corners of the human body and contain a high concentration of nerve endings.

Just recently, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the federal government may impose decency guidelines on the arts funding it distributes. Some insist that the National Endowment for the Arts has been so eviscerated anyway--even though the most recently approved budget held steady at last year's rate--that artists have learned to survive without it. As contemptible as the Republican Congress tying fundamentalist Christian strings to public money is, the sight of petulant artists demanding their due in the name of free expression can also set your teeth on edge. Because in the history of controversial art, boys and girls, adversity and obstacle have often been intoxicants to the muse. Although Karen Finley apparently didn't admit it in her recent New York performance The Return of the Chocolate-Smeared Woman, it's nonetheless true: She and Jesse Helms need each other like co-participants in an abusive, dysfunctional relationship. Art that shocks and riles is a pure exercise in self-indulgence without a peanut gallery of community-standards-crazed malcontents.

Dallas-born playwright Doug Wright must have understood this when he penned his 1995 Obie Award-winning Quills, a mostly fictionalized account of the Marquis de Sade, whose literary career and real life were all about self-indulgence. And no fool he, de Sade was keenly aware that his role as a chronicler of sadistic sexual escapades (which were in themselves, some critics claim, parodies of the Catholic hypocrisies encoded into French society) required that same society's moral indignation to be effective.

In the North Texas premiere of Quills, Stage West founding director Jerry Russell steps into the powdered wig of the notorious 18th- and early-19th-century pornographer, the Marquis de Sade, with nimble, puckish aplomb. He and his fellow cast members, under the direction of Jim Covault, spin a gruesome but curiously lighthearted comedy from threads that a lesser company might have used to create an artist-martyr's hair shirt.

Quills opens in the Charenton Asylum, where de Sade lingers in close-quartered luxury during his winter years, writing tales of incest, bestiality, necrophilia, and coprophilia in the same blithely rococo language that is, of course, the real source of outrage--the man probably would've been celebrated if he had recounted these sordid tales in deadly serious, condemnatory language. The stuff flies through his prison bars to an eager outside audience of fans and censors alike, much to the chagrin of de Sade's society-conscious wife (Judy Keith). Complaining that she can't enjoy an opera without people whispering appellations like "Satan's wife" in the box around her, she pays off Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Muller), the director of Charenton, to do whatever he must to stop de Sade from writing.

Collard is too busy designing his opulent house and places the burden of censorship on the young Abbe de Coulmier (Tom McNelly), a man who prefers creative therapy over the rack and the screw, and is cursed with altogether too much conscience to deal with Collard and de Sade. What unfolds is a series of face-offs between Coulmier and de Sade, in which the writer destroys his gentle Christian warden by forcing him to adopt ever crueler, more outrageous methods to silence him--in other words, by forcing the Abbe de Coulmier to become as twistedly inventive as the most reprehensible Sadistic protagonist.

Intellectual freedom, the potential for evil inside everyone, dismemberment, and castration--not topics that generally incite a laugh riot, you say? Stage West's production of Quills keeps all of it light, focused, and frequently very funny. The tone of the gore is like one of those Roger Corman "adaptations" of Edgar Allan Poe stories, without the gratuitous bloodletting; the sexual language is elaborate and non-profane, employing words like "aperture" and "rosebud" for salacious ends. Jerry Russell's sparring partner Tom McNelly is equally fine as a voice of compassion and balance that is eventually outshouted by de Sade's relentless drive to create. You can be the proudest intellectual libertine on the planet and still be utterly repulsed by the Marquis' delight in sexual exploitation and torture. One of the characters, a prison worker (Dana Schultes) who is, along with her blind mother, an ardent fan of the man's writing, pays a heavy toll for her appreciation. Which is why, in the end, Quills is concerned far less with censorship than with one discomforting truth: What may alarm us most about artistic depictions of decadence and evil is that they remind us these phenomena are as human as altruism and empathy. The Marquis de Sade didn't invent the stuff he wrote about, after all; he was just there to remind us that there's a cruel, selfish twin to humanity's impulse toward nobility.

And he is, in Quills, a perversely inspiring poster boy for the need to express, to dictate our imaginations, and unroll its scroll for public perusal. One of the jobs of literature, after all, is to reveal intimate and even embarrassing secrets about ourselves to each other. To confess only those things that flatter us is, by definition, no confession at all.

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