"The play is written, I hope, with all the fervor and self-consciousness of true melodrama," says playwright Doug Wright of Quills. "Events in the play are not cruel; they are diabolical. Characters are not good or bad; they are either kissed by God, or yoked in Satan's merciless employ." He asks that his play be performed in a nearly archaic, stylized fashion, with all actors striving for the grotesque. He hopes that these ridiculous conventions taken in conjunction with all the stage blood and fake body parts will lend Quills, a fictional play about the Marquis de Sade, an air of the absurd. Wright, whose wordy script drips with rare and bloody meat, ripe for the chewing, is begging his players to indulge in a gluttonous feast of overacting. But Playhouse on the Square's production of Quills, staged at TheatreWorks as a part of the POTS at the Works series, embraces a jumble of archaic styles ranging from kitchen sink realism to rococo. It is, by turns, frustrating, fascinating, awful, and astounding.
When Brian Mott takes stage as Dr. Royer-Collard, chief physician at Charenton Asylum, and a man perfectly willing to engage in fraud to protect his reputation as a Christian, he is a black-booted vision of discipline and deceit. Royer-Collard, whose riding crop functions as a natural extention of his arm, has no use for the liberal techniques employed by the would-be reformer Abbe de Coulmier. He runs an asylum not a resort, and if God's work is to be done properly, torture must abound.
In life, de Sade was a rapist and an admitted criminal of the first order. His behavior made him a troublesome figure for admirers and apologists alike. Suppressed because they challenged the belief that wickedness and wisdom can never co-mingle, de Sade's pornographic novels predict the rise of Freud and the awful inevitability of social Darwinism. When Dickens writes about the sweatshops of London, de Sade is there. The now infamous tapes of Enron executives laughing about how they are going to screw the poorest energy consumers in California echo with a Sadian contempt for all things weak and prove the dirty old man's continued demonic relevance. Though it strays far from historical facts, Quills gets de Sade very nearly right. He's the orally obsessed, fecal-minded child who, raised by a sexually abusive priest, watched as his fellow aristocrats were butchered during the French Revolution. He's a man who has seen the worst in mankind and sees no need to sugar-coat even the ugliest truth.
In his swan-song performance the Michigan-bound Kyle Barnette underplays the oversexed de Sade. Even when dressed as Jesus and sporting a strap-on device with three silly-looking rubber penises attached, he manages to be strangely understated. It's almost disappointing during de Sade's more manic episodes. But when Barnette turns to the Abbe, and quietly announces, "He who sits in the sun is often blinded by it and devoured by the forces of darkness," we are reminded that understatement is this actor's particular gift.
Courtney Oliver and John Maness play the sweet-hearted (if dirty-minded) laundress and the accidentally evil (if honorably inclined) Abbe who stand between Royer-Collard and de Sade. Before the play is over the two will be joined in a union which can only be described as "post mortem." Maness is particularly effective as a man who, faced with de Sade's obstinate perversity, grows to love the kinds of torture he claims to revile. Oliver is, as the playwright proscribes, "touched by God" as de Sade's virginal accomplice, sliced to pieces and defiled in every way by a lunatic overly aroused by one of de Sade's literary obscenities.
Quills is an imperfect pleasure. The acting styles range from the supremely subtle to the positively out of control, and difficult, tongue-twisting lines sometimes come out twisted and difficult to understand. It's a show that, even at its best, can be painful to watch. But a little pain is good sometimes.
Quills is at TheatreWorks through August 1st.
Over the years director Bennett Wood has proven himself to be a master of the musical revue. He's assembled wonderful, witty tributes to such artists as Harold Arlen, Learner and Lowe, and Stephen Sondhiem, but Broadway by Request at Theatre Memphis isn't Wood's best work. Not by a longshot. The theater's patrons selected the 40-plus songs collected in Broadway by Request, so Wood had very little control over the show's dynamics. If the audience wants to hear one mid-tempo song after another, there's only so much a director can do to juice things up.
The cast of Broadway by Request has clearly been selected because of their outstanding vocal skills, not their prowess as actors. Songs such as "Get Me to the Church on Time" from My Fair Lady were intended to be acted not sung. Beautifully articulated, pitch-perfect renditions sort of defeat the whole purpose. There are, of course, some exceptional performances. Georgette Turner's "Bali Hai" from South Pacific and Jude Knight's "Memories" from Cats prove that there's still some life in these old clichés.
Broadway by Request is, in many ways, a victim of its own ambition. It should have been a single, tightly focused act with half the number of songs and a clear through-line. It's hard enough to reconcile "Oklahoma" with "Brigadoon." Simple and satisfying numbers from Broadway's golden years don't mix with the pop schmaltz of Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
If two hours of show tunes beautifully sung by people in tuxedoes with virtually no acting, dancing, or scenery to support them sounds like your idea of a good time, then Broadway by Request is the show for you. Just try not to recoil in horror as the closing number morphs into a subscription pitch.
To end on a more positive note, the orchestra sounds great. Sadly, that's not been the standard at Theater Memphis for many years now. Perhaps it's a sign that, under its new management, things are finally starting to look up.
Broadway by Request is at Theatre Memphis through July 25th.
Is hell freezing over? I ask this question because Bash, Neil LaBute's trilogy of terror, will open at Germantown Community Theatre this weekend as part of an event called The Wild Days of Summer. Bash, which the Homeless Llama Theatre Company will present, is without a doubt the edgiest material to ever appear on stage at the traditionally conservative community theater.
"I had all of these companies asking if we had any openings in our season," says Cori Stevenson, the theater's executive producer. "They wanted to know if we had a weekend, or even just a day [open]. It was pretty clear that there was a need for performance space."
Stevenson's decision to create The Wild Days of Summer, wasn't entirely selfless. "It's a great opportunity for us to look at new directors, new designers, and too look at original scripts," she says.
In addition to Bash, Pucky Productions will stage The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)", and local playwright Ruby O'Gray will present her musical The Real, New, New Adventures of Cindy D. Rella about a girl who lives on the outskirts of Memphis and works in a bad-weave beauty parlor with her stepmother and three wicked stepsisters. n
Germantown's Wild Days last through August 8th.