Playhouse and TheatreWorks present Quills.
Concerning the redemptive power of suffering, Nietzsche once said, "It becomes regard for the general welfare, not to lessen suffering, but to increase it -- for oneself and also for others. Pushed to its limit practical ethics becomes ugly -- even consistent cruelty to human beings. So the effect of Christianity is unnerving when it commands acceptance of all suffering without any attempt at resistance."
The mad German might just as well have been quoting the Marquis de Sade. His dark proclamation is the very stuff of Quills, Tony Award-winning playwright Doug Wright's jet-black comedy about the incorrigible de Sade and his last ugly days in Charenton Asylum.
Charenton is progressive and dedicated to liberal notions of therapy and rehabilitation until the new Master of Lunacy takes over. Dr. Royer-Collard is a true master, and based on his faith in God, he favors more traditional -- and more cruel -- forms of punishment. The asylum quickly becomes a torture chamber, but nothing can stop the perverse pen of the wily de Sade. When he is stripped of quills and paper, he writes on his bed sheets using a fish bone and wine. When these crude tools are taken, de Sade writes on his clothing using his own blood for ink. Stripped naked, he still manages to tell his obscene tales, and even decapitated, the sex-obsessed devil lives on.
"I personally love the connection between horror, blood, violence, and comedy," says Quills director Jennifer Vellenga, a University of Miami professor. "They seem like they don't go together, and you certainly don't expect them to go together. So it's a big challenge, and that's what makes for exciting theater."
John Maness who plays the Abbe de Coulmier, the progressive young priest who becomes de Sade's torturer and eventually his surrogate, was first struck by Quills' unique style.
"It has all these conceits that you don't see much anymore," Maness says. "It has elements of shock theater and of the French Theater of Blood. I read it and I thought it would be a great show to do at TheatreWorks. [Playhouse on the Square's executive producer] Jackie Nichols agreed."
In the year and a half since she signed on to direct Quills, a lot of ugly things have happened in the world. Pictures have leaked out to the American media showing naked Iraqi prisoners being tortured and humiliated by their captors. Islamic radicals have released videotapes showing the decapitation of American prisoners. Quills depicts torture and humiliation, and it ends with a beheading.
"When all of these beheadings started happening, I decided I didn't want to do this play anymore. I didn't know how to do this play in these times," Vellenga says. "And then I said no! This is exactly the play to do in these times. We've got to do it, and we've got to make it funny. If we can look at these things and we can laugh, then maybe we can release the things that frighten and horrify us when we watch the news or hear from family members overseas. It's literature and entertainment. It's not reality, and so maybe it can help with the healing."
Quills isn't reality in any sense. It's an over-the-top melodrama that flirts shamelessly with the absurd. It's the extreme theatricality of the piece that really gets Vellenga excited.
"As we get to the point in our culture where film and television become our main sources of entertainment, my viewpoint is that theater has to become more and more theatrical," she says. "If we make theater reality and a kitchen sink and all that -- well, film can just do it better. So it doesn't make sense to write those kinds of [kitchen-sink] plays anymore. We need things that break boundaries."
Kyle Barnette, a wicked fixture at Playhouse on the Square for several seasons, plays the naughty de Sade. It will be his last role in Memphis before heading off to Michigan to help develop a summer stock theater on a resort island.
"It's a real opportunity, and I have to do it. Of course I'm sure I'll come back and do things at Playhouse," Barnette says. "It just won't be next season.
"I'm drawn to the marquis' dark side," Barnette says. "I guess everybody says that sort of thing. It really is more fun playing the villains. But I don't really like to talk about my process very much because that's always boring and pretentious."
Process aside, Barnette's flair for the dark side is well known. He made his Memphis debut in Neil LaBute's Bash at Theatre Memphis playing a straight-laced Morman businessman who just happened to kill his babies one day. His chillingly unaffected performance caught the eye of Playhouse regular Dave Landis who let management know there was a new actor in town who was well worth checking out. Shortly after, Barnette joined the company, appearing in such shows as Grease, Hair, Dinner With Friends, and The Philadelphia Story.
Quills has been designed for alley seating with the audience on both sides of the stage. "The marquis challenges his readers, saying, 'Go ahead and put the book down, I dare you to keep reading.' He challenges the reader to turn away, so my designers suggested we have the audience on both sides [of the stage] so that they had to look at each other," Vellenga says.
To some extent, Barnette hopes the audience will spend more time looking at each other than at him. He spends a sizable chunk of the second act naked.
"It's the sort of thing that when I read the play, I said, 'Sure, I'll do that,'" he says skeptically. "But as it gets closer and closer to opening night Oh well. Here I am."
At TheatreWorks July 9th-August 1st