The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) secured infamy as the eponyn of the term sadism, a catchall for cruelty and sexual depravity. Controversial in his time, the Marquis continues to be a frequent bibliographic subject on stage, with Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and Doug Wright’s QUILLS, both regularly staged and both adapted into films. The latter play, a brilliantly twisted, fictionalized look at de Sade’s time in the asylum of Charenton, is now getting a delightfully dark treatment on the new Luna Theater stage.
De Sade’s best work, Justine, is sometimes titled “the misfortune of virtue”. In it, the author seeks to show how living a virtuous life does is no guarantee against foul fates (which mostly include rape and sexual humiliation). QUILLS finds the Marquis (Robb Hutter) imprisoned for writing such works, but living in relative comfort until a new warden (Mark Knight) comes to “bring about a more stringent atmosphere” to the asylum.
De Sade’s virtuous curate (Alan Holmes) is instructed to take away his quills and manuscripts, which he’s been smuggling out of Charenton with the help of the virginal laundry girl (Nell Bang-Jensen). The Marquis resorts to ever more imaginative measures to write his debauched stories (luridly told onstage by Hutter): he uses his clothes and wine, his walls. Eventually, he crafts his impure visions using the inmates and the wardens themselves.
In his writing, de Sade was concerned with showing the full range of human nature and the hypocrisies of apparently virtuous characters. Wright’s playful script captures this ethos. Considering the popularity of the Marquis’ books in relation to the bible, a character remarks that it’s hard to tell “which book contains the truth about mankind, and which lies.”
Luna director Gregory Scott Campbell has matched Wright’s diabolically funny visions with a dungeonlike set (Dirk Durossette) and atmospheric music (Adam Vidiksis) and lights (Ben Levan). Campbell resists the temptation to overplay the intricate language or farcical goings on. The actors take the script seriously, and in doing so bring out its twisted humor and devilish silliness. Sadism never felt so good. [620 S. Eighth Street] October 25-November 15, 2014; lunatheater.org.