Different Stages doesn't light up the dark corners of this gothic comedy about the Marquis de Sade

Happy to be de Sade: Craig Kanne's Marquis (r) bends the ear of & Joe Hartman's Abbé.
Happy to be de Sade: Craig Kanne's Marquis (r) bends the ear of & Joe Hartman's Abbé. (Courtesy of Bret Brookshire)


City Theatre, 3823-D Airport
Through Jan. 26
Running time: 2 hr., 25 min.

I suspect that the Marquis de Sade and Eric Idle would have gotten along nicely if they'd ever met. As the latter once intoned: "Isn't it awfully nice to have a penis? You can wrap it up in ribbons; you can slip it in your sock. But don't take it out in public, or they will stick you in the dock." As Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright demonstrates in Quills, the latest offering from Different Stages, the infamous de Sade suffered such a fate for indecent exposure of the pornography in his mind.

From his cell at Charenton Asylum, the wayward old pervert de Sade (Craig Kanne) prolifically writes – and disseminates, via chambermaid Madeleine (Melissa Vogt-Patterson) – the sort of inflammatory novels that got him locked up in the first place. The madhouse's keepers, Abbé de Coulmier (Joe Hartman) and Doctor Royer-Collard (Travis Bedard), determined to "protect malleable minds from pernicious influence," attempt to censor the offender by any means necessary. But though they confiscate the author's quills (and I don't just mean writing implements), they fail to silence him.

Wright's gothic script abides in the darkest corners of comedy; much like Killer Joe or Sweeney Todd, it should be an uncomfortable experience that wrinkles your nose as it beckons a belly laugh. Unfortunately, in the hands of Artistic Director Norman Blumensaadt, the unsettling story falls somewhat limply into the audience's lap.

The genre is so macabre that it requires a certain amount of stylized acting, lest we find it too real and forget to laugh. But this cast's tendency to overact bogs down much of the script's wry humor; the audience does not, for example, need hand gestures to accompany the majority of this play's many innuendos. At some points, I felt I was being treated like a child who couldn't be trusted to get all the jokes. Ann Marie Gordon's set, though attractive and pleasantly complemented by Patrick Anthony's dramatic lighting and Ann Ford's period costumes, restricts the City Theatre's already small stage, leaving a no-man's-land at center. It forces much awkward staging that, along with generally slow pacing, makes the play feel very long and very wordy.

As the flamboyant de Sade, Craig Kanne must be applauded for sheer guts – there aren't many local actors-of-a-certain-age who could be enlisted to parade around in their birthday suits for half a play. Kanne's performance is certainly a labor of love, but played at counterpoint with the deep emotional center that Joe Hartman found in the earnest Abbé, the Marquis sometimes feels like a caricature. The excellently coiffed Tony Salinas is a bit-part highlight, his boundless energy surfacing periodically.

Though Quills boasts more euphemisms for that firm javelin than the Monty Python crew could dream of, this production doesn't quite rise to the occasion.

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Quills, Austin theatre, Different Stages, Norman Blumensaadt, Doug Wright, Ann Marie Gordon, Ann Ford, Patrick Anthony, Craig Kanne, Melissa Vogt-Patterson, Travis Bedard, Joe Hartman, Tony Salinas

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