By John Farrell
Quills is billed as a play about the Marquis de Sade, and you know in advance there is going to be nudity: you have to check your cell phone at the door so no inadvertent pictures will be downloaded onto social media sites. But the reality is very different from the advertisement. Once inside the Queen’s Theater on the Queen Mary the stage is set with very sedate 18th century furniture and the Marquis himself, Jerry Prell, is handsomely onstage in a full-bottomed wig and with quill in hand, writing obsessively as he lives in refined isolation in the Asylum of Charenton.
You know in advance that Quills is a play about censorship, and you are ready for some pretty harrowing moments. From the first, at least on opening night, you aren’t ready for the audience, many of whom know the cast members, since they are all students at California State University, Long Beach. Whether you agree with Quills, whether you understand its very important message, you certainly don’t think it is a farce. (For one thing, the doors are locked.) But opening night the audience laughed at everything, raucous laughter, and it was hard to accept the depth of the message when everyone was laughing at their friends on stage.
The story is a very serious one about the suppression of writing, told in a very surreal way. Playwright Doug Wright uses the characters in his play outrageously (if that can be done to De Sade.) Charenton was where De Sade was made comfortable, where for 25 years he was an honored inmate, writing and producing plays, marrying and treated with respect, if caution. In Quills De Sade is harassed, prevented from writing and, as he obsessively writes in blood and even feces, is stripped naked, then has his hands cut off, and then is finally beheaded by the priest in charge.
None of this really happened, and the play has little to say about the real De Sade: it is a morality tale that just uses the characters names to makes its points. The message is clear: suppression of communication is wrong: the need to communicate is strong and relentless. The play’s message is powerful, the acting competent and professional, but for all that Quills fall a bit flat. If it isn’t about De Sade (and it isn’t) why say so? Prell does a fantastic job, retaining his dignity even when naked and handless. But, with the unnecessary laughter and the unnecessary characterizations, Quills is less than it might be – a play without any real heart, part Grand Guignol, (though with very little blood,) large part preaching to the choir.
Tickets are $20, $15 for students, seniors and military members. Quills plays Wednesday, Feb. 29, Thursday, March 1, Friday, March 2 and Saturday March 3 at 8 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, March 6-10 at 8 p.m.
Details: (562) 985-5526, www.calrep.org
Venue: Royal Theatre, R.M.S. Queen Mary
Location: 1126 Queen’s Highway, Long Beach