It only hurts when I laugh

Quills brings the subversive art of the Marquis de Sade to the Blue Room

THE PENIS MIGHTIER … <br>Left to right, Dylan Latimer as the mad Marqus de Sade, Rob Wilson as Doctor Royer-Collard, and Benjamin Allen as the Abbe du Coulmier in the Blue Room production of <i>Quills</i>.

Left to right, Dylan Latimer as the mad Marqus de Sade, Rob Wilson as Doctor Royer-Collard, and Benjamin Allen as the Abbe du Coulmier in the Blue Room production of Quills.

Photo By Stephanie Bird

“Happiness for you, my little kumquat, is achieved through strict adhesion to society’s mandates. Most men follow this hackneyed passage; like eager children set loose on a scavenger hunt, they dart about in search of the assigned baubles—wives, offspring, gainful employ, handsome homes—and when they have accrued them all—voila! The promised treasure is won—happiness ensues! But for me, happiness springs from a different course.”

Thus does the Marquis de Sade assess his relationship to society in Doug Wright’s play, Quills. And, lest we need to be reminded of the source of the Marquis’ notoriety, when asked what satisfies him, he answers: “To slice through the social artifice, shatter her false conventions, and become one with nature’s Cimmerian Tide, where only the ruthless excel, and where brute force yields its own treasure! Past etiquette, past decency, past morals—that’s where happiness lies, like the winking chasm buried deep in the briars of a woman’s groin.”

The language of Quills is rich, even elegant, dripping with lively metaphors and cogent emotional nuance, but the subject matter is such that members of polite society may be driven to doubt their preconception that pretty, well-articulated speech may only convey socially acceptable conceptions.

As staged by the Blue Room Theatre troupe under the direction of Joe Hilsee and starring Dylan Latimer as the Marquis, Quills is sure to be the topic of many a fervent post-performance conversation as dating couples sip a soothing pint and attempt to assimilate the grotesque emotional honesty of the play into their own relationships.

They’ll have plenty of fodder for such conversation. As Hilsee put it when asked what he hoped an audience might take away from their experience: “A little thrill. A little shock. And hopefully some question of why this is shocking.”

What won’t be shocking to veterans of previous Blue Room productions is the courage, audacity, skill and artistic conviction of the players involved in this production—Latimer as the Marquis is the quintessence of elegant subversion, never wavering in his desire for fleshy thrills and ideological challenges, ever-ready to spout off the elegant speeches which make perfectly rational his criticisms of convention-and-religion-bound passions; Jennifer McAffee as the teen-aged asylum housemaid, Madeleine Leclerc, the object and willing receptacle of de Sade’s carnal fantasies; Jocelyn Stringer as de Sade’s long-suffering, socially outcast wife, Renee Pelagie; Rob Wilson as Doctor Royer-Collard, the newly appointed, much-cuckolded director of the asylum that houses de Sade; Benjamin Allen as his unwilling minion, the conflicted Abbe du Coulmier and Brian Sampson as Prouix, the carnally scheming architect of Royer-Collard’s grandiose estate.

This is a cast of experienced actors and brilliantly realized characters embroiled in a play that is deliberately designed to challenge our conceptions of what is considered artistically and emotionally acceptable.

Quills’ fusion of Grand Guignol and melodramatic styles, which essentially ensures that the production is both physically and emotionally violent, is delightfully contradicted by the casual elegance of the language used by its characters to convey even the most shocking revelations of debauchery and mayhem. The nudity of certain characters is far less challenging to the sensibilities of the delicately nurtured audience than the exposure of emotional truths that disallow us to hide from our own base desires and motivations. It is for this skillfully wrought emotional confrontation that Quills received the 1995 Kesselring Prize for Best New American Play from the National Arts Club and a 1995 Village Voice Obie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting.

As de Sade himself wrote: “Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all … ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust.”