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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

It’s Not the size of the pen that counts

We eat. We shit. We die.
Richard Feldman
“We eat. We shit. We die.”

On January 20 last week, Inauguration Day, I forsook this event in favor of a more, shall we say, manly enterprise. I am speaking of, naturally, the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Doug Wright’s scandalous play “Quills.” Oddly enough, the New Repertory Theatre is housed inside a Congregational Church, which lent the production a certain air of blasphemy, even a bit of legitimacy, when taking into account the events that transpired on the actual stage itself. ”

Quills,” having already successfully crossed over to the big screen in 2000 under the same title, is a dramatic retelling of the Marquis de Sade’s last weeks in an insane asylum in early Napoleonic France. Some of you may not be acquainted with the infamous name of de Sade so allow me to clarify. The Marquis de Sade was a French nobleman renowned and imprisoned for his, ahem, sexual extravagances. I shall omit the particulars of said extravagancies, for the sake of decency, and lack of adequate innuendo for these debauch deeds of depravity. Suffice to say that even though for the average man’s appetites the human body should have an adequate number of orifices, this often proved to be less than sufficient for the Marquis. Even the word “sadist” is derived from the Marquis’ surname, de Sade expressing to the full extent how his libido and imagination were equally prolific; just imagine a teenage sex dream after a bad calzone and too much Dramamine.

The Marquis’ oeuvre is rather extensive, but out of time’s twisted sense of irony, works like his 120 Days of Sodom and Philosophy in the Bedroom, once censored, are now readily available at any Newbury Comics. Playwright Doug Wright’s characterization of de Sade reflects the historical man’s temperament and attitude with accuracy all too uncommon in our era of cinematic anachronisms and historical embellishments (Troy, Alexander, Gladiator). This is a play dealing with the slimy, slippery undercarriage of human nature, probing deep into the bowels of sanity, madness, the limitations of the artist’s conceptual legitimacy, freedom of speech, and, most of all, the true nature of humanity. And it’s a raunchy sex comedy to boot! With a stupendous cast, the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Quills” thrusts us into the topsy-turvy world of Charenton Asylum. The Marquis, played by Austin Pendleton, is in the midst of mental rehabilitation, and takes to writing out his most perverse and nightmarish sexual fantasies as a means of, uh, purging them.

This would be all fine and good, except he is smuggling them outside the asylum walls to a publisher via a pretty laundry maid named Madeleine, played by the comely Marianna Bassham. Both Dr. Royer-Collard, the newly appointed director of the asylum (played expertly by Steven Barkhimer with humor and wit reminiscent of Beaumarchais) who is concerned with maintaining his position (and his nymphomaniac wife), and the “lily-livered” Abbé de Coulmier, wonderfully portrayed by Benjamin Evett, attempt to “cure” the Marquis of his depravities, at any cost. The Abbé is from a stock of clergy that actually take Christ’s teaching literally, and he attempts to treat all his patients with love, understanding, and water coloring, including the priapic Marquis de Sade. With a brilliant supporting cast, featuring a dandy architect (Kevin Landis) and the Marquis’ wife (played by the irrepressible Rachel Harker), the play follows the Abbé’s efforts to cure de Sade of his unorthodox, yet not whole-heartedly insane, behavior, and the disastrous results of this rehabilitation. All the characters are imbued with enough sexuality, both overt and repressed, to equal that of any of de Sade’s own literary creations, albeit much better written. Scenes of note would be those with Steven Barkhimer and Benjamin Evett. As Dr. Royer-Collard and Abbé de Coulmier respectively, these two had good chemistry, and their interaction with one another made their shared scenes some of the best in the whole production. Austin Pendleton, however, seemed to stumble over some of the Marquis’ speeches. There was even some buzz during the intermission that he completely forgot a good third of his lines. Judging by his swagger and his disposition to tripping over words, one cannot help but wonder whether that wine he was drinking on-stage, whose flavor possessed “a certain wantonness,” was in fact not the grape juice it appeared to be. My editor warned (read: promised) me of full frontal nudity. In Quills, however, the only thing full frontal is a 60-year-old Pendleton. Perhaps Pendleton’s performance was somewhat inhibited by his complete lack of clothing. It certainly did make paying attention to certain scenes excruciatingly difficult. Many of us audience members were obliged to turn our heads, take off our prescription glasses, or by various other means, block Pendleton’s genitals from sight. If you’d like to spend an enjoyable evening at the theatre, and don’t mind seeing necrophilia, blood, sexually promiscuity, madness, or an old man’s penis, then I would highly recommend you see “Quills” at the New Repertory Theatre. Just hop the D-Line to the Newton Highlands stop. For tickets or show times call (617) 332-1646. If you get there 10 minutes before curtain time there is what’s called “The Student Rush” where all tickets are $10, payable in cash only, with a valid student ID.