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Upon entering the usually staid surroundings of ACT's Allen Theater for Quills, it's clear that something's up.
A Contemporary Theater, 292-7676
Screams, groans, and the sound of clinking chains are in the air, and around the periphery of the audience's seating, bars stretch from floor to ceiling. You take your seat with the vague feeling that you're in for an experience akin to a Disney ride.
Which is what you receive, albeit the grown-up, blood-and-guts, sexually explicit version. Doug Wright's humorous riff on the notorious Marquis de Sade is a clever debate on the nature of artistic censorship in the guise of an evening of that fabled theater of excess, the Grand Guignol.
Set in the Charenton Asylum in 1807, Wright's story focuses on a conflict between the Marquis (Rocco Sisto) and the Abbe de Coulmier (David Pichette), who oversees the lunatics. The asylum's new administrator (Séan G. Griffin) is under pressure by the Marquis's wife (Lori Larsen) to end forever the Marquis's writings, which are still being smuggled out to the general public. The Abbe, who's supplied de Sade with paper and quills, argues that writing has kept the patient sane. But when he reads the Marquis's violently pornographic work, he quickly changes his mind.
Wright re-imagines de Sade as a sort of aesthete-superman, who charges pell-mell into excess through a philosophical belief that Man's true nature is bestial. Sisto takes this idea and runs with it, combining his formidable physical presence with a lisping preciousness that's positively pan-sexual. He towers over Pichette's Abbe, who nonetheless begins reasonably enough with a cogent critique of the flaws in de Sade's writing and who pleads with him to write about virtues, not vices. After the Abbe confiscates the quills and paper, the two men enter into a battle of wills that inevitably escalates into violence and horror.
Wright brings together a formidable intellect with a playful imagination; he uses comedy and excess to discuss a serious issue. But there's something undeniably heartless about this play, a tendency that the keen but cold direction of Jeff Steitzer emphasizes. I couldn't shake the feeling that somewhere in the midst of the mutilations, dream sequences, and assorted horrors, Wright had deftly side-stepped the thornier problems of self-expression and censorship in favor of entertainment. Perhaps this is merely indicative that the playwright, like de Sade himself, has succeeded in his greatest aim: provoking his audience.