This much is true: Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known as literature's most famous libertine, the Marquis de Sade, was imprisoned at the Charenton asylum for the final decade of his life. He found a forgiving jailor in the Abbé de Coulmier, who allowed the inmate to continue writing his ribald plays, which were often performed by other inmates. He had a relationship with Madeleine LeClerc, the fourteen-year-old daughter of an asylum employee, and was eventually placed in solitary confinement, where he was forbidden to write.
The rest of Doug Wright's Quills, however? Well, let's just say the playwright took some liberties — liberties that are delivered with relish in Max & Louie's engaging production of the comedy at the Wool Studio Theatre.
Directed by Brooke Edwards, Quills opens as the Marquis de Sade's social-climbing wife, Renée Pélagie (Stacie Knock), agrees to bankroll the asylum's modernization (new thumbscrews, better restraining beds) so long as its new director, Doctor Royer-Collard (David Wassilak), can get her husband to stop writing his dirty stories. The director calls upon the well-intentioned Abbé de Coulmier (Antonio Rodriguez) to enact his treatment plan, progressively depriving the Marquis (Ted Gregory) of his tools of expression.
But the conniving Marquis, whom Gregory plays with delectable perversion, outmatches Coulmier at every turn. Gregory's Marquis, all fleshy excess here, flirts with the Abbé. He takes a cruel pleasure in torturing his adversary as he writes his naughty tales first on sheets, then in blood, then in feces — in other words, in and on whatever substance is at hand. The clash between the two men sets up the play's central conflict: artistic expression versus censorship and what responsibility the artist has for how their audience reacts.
For the most part, Coulmier's fragile dogma withers before the Marquis' piercing tongue. But the Marquis goes too far when one of his stories results in the death of Madeleine LeClerc (Caitlin Mickey), a turn of events that eventually transforms Coulmier into a more monstrous sadist than the Marquis ever could have hoped, dismantling the writer piece by piece.
Unfortunately for the play, however, the playwright also goes too far with Madeleine's death. The Marquis, who once took such delight in torturing young virgins, breaks down when he learns Madeleine was one as well. It turns out that under that pervy façade of his, the Marquis had a bourgeois heart after all — or at least that's the depressing implication. And suddenly, this bawdy play of transgression and control takes on a much tamer more domesticated feel.
Nevertheless, the Max & Louie production has some real highlights. Edwards' stage direction is filled with smart, sometimes surreal choices that keep the show visually and intellectually interesting. Similarly, Dunsi Dai's set design manages to be both spare and rich, boasting several clever surprises. Maureen Berry's lighting design is superb, and Cyndi Lohrmann's costumes are gorgeous.
The acting, on the other hand, is pretty uneven. Still, Gregory gives a splendid, twisting and baroque performance as the Marquis, spending much of the play all but naked. Mickey is convincing as the seamstress Madeleine, and Rodriguez handles Coulmier's transformation well, although there could have been more character development upfront, giving some earlier indication of the vicious propensities buried within.
No, the play may not offer much in terms of historical illumination. But as theater? It has moments when it shines.
Quills Through August 17 at the Wool Studio Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. Tickets are $25 to $30. Call 314-795-8778 or click here.
Follow RFT critic-at-large Malcolm Gay on Twitter @malcolmgay.