Quills, the controversial 1995 play based on the life of the Marquis De Sade (written by Dallas-born, Tony Award-winning playwright Doug Wright) is coming to The Overtime Theatre in San Antonio for a limited run.
Produced by Aria Creative Productions, the piece poses the question: “What is art?” It pulls no punches in its depiction of the more sordid aspects of De Sade’s milieu, but director Nicole Erwin and star Joseph Urick hope this play will provoke thoughtful discussions among discerning audiences rather than mere shock. They were kind enough to answer some questions about the show.
What was the inspiration behind producing this controversial piece at the Overtime?
Nicole Erwin: Aria’s mission has always been about producing material that’s provocative. While the show has been previously produced, it was written by a Texas playwright, which also adds to our mission of producing works by native writers. The Overtime Theatre has been incredibly supportive in assisting us with this process.
How do you hope the play will be received?
NE: With an open mind, hopefully (laughs)! This is not an easy piece of theater to sit through. So we hope people will come to see the show with an open mind and not only challenge their views about art and censorship, but find the humor in such a dark story. There are some moments where people will be laughing, so there are lots of levels. In a time when sensationalized stories are the norm both online and in the news, this piece is both stirring and apt.
Joseph Urick: You don’t have to look far to find overhyped headlines and something else new and crazy, so we have to eventually start asking ourselves, “Are we desensitized to it yet?” and how far we’re willing to go. That’s kind of what the story is about — how far is art allowed to go before it’s no longer art. Is that even such a thing?
This play centers on a particular portion of his life, right?
JU: To be fair, while Quills does focus on certain aspects of the Marquis De Sade’s life, it is hyperfictionalized. It’s not a historical retelling of his life. It’s almost as if the Marquis wrote a story about his time in the asylum, and this play is his version of the events that took place.
How is your ensemble finding their characters and working with them?
NE: We’ve been rehearsing about two weeks now and things are progressing nicely. Most of the cast has worked together before. Some of them are pretty close friends, and that adds layers in terms and familiarity and intimacy. Really, it was important that the ensemble trust one another, due to the intimate moments. That’s been a challenge unto itself, however, because many of the cast members haven’t had to work with each other in this type of context before. But in a short time, I’ve seen the performers make great strides to rise to the occasion. I’m really pleased with the work that they’re doing.
Joseph, are there any traits or colorings you’re adding to your character, De Sade, to personalize him and make him truly yours?
JU: I’ve had to, because historically speaking, the Marquis died in Charente at the age of 73. Geoffrey Rush, who played him in the film, was in his 50s when he did it, and I just turned 30, so I am at a bit of a “disadvantage,” because I am very young to play this part. But for me, the impishness of the Marquis kind of adds to it.
There’s a really fun phrase that I’ve been using as my character’s mantra — “You’re only as young as you think you are.” The Marquis, in his old age, still sees himself as the Don Juan libertine of his youth. It’s kind of cool, because although others look at my character as an old man, I’m still young at heart. So it’s been a really nice co-existence; I’m still this impish rogue while being able to play an older age.
How does the theater work compare to the film adaptation?
JU: Doug Wright adapted his play for the film when it was produced back in 2000. He took so much out of the play to make the movie. You can almost say the movie plays with kid gloves compared to the play. For example. the end of Act One is kind of the climax of the film. In the play, there’s still another act that happens. The production we’re putting on, given the intimacy of our space, focuses more on character development than the hypersensationalized aspects of the story. We hope people don’t walk away saying, “We saw someone naked!” but rather consider the real themes and the real questions that the script provokes them to ask.
NE: Yes, and why are we doing this in such an intimate space? It’s clearly not for everyone, so the intimacy is almost required. The nude scenes can be enough to deter some people, but the play is written in such a way that the audience becomes immersed in the story and actually becomes desensitized to the nudity. There are times when I don’t even think about it! So yes, we’re really excited about this play.
Anything else you’d like to add about the production?
JU: It’s an old adage, but “Be prepared!” We put the disclaimer on everything. I know, as of late, there have been a string of plays that push the edge. The Public has done Hand to God, and AtticRep did The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? I think it’s a good thing that we’re seeing these provocative, questioning productions being done in San Antonio. I really feel that we can perform this piece without it being bogged down by controversy. Hopefully, it’s going to be — fingers crossed — that ideal combination of terrifying and wonderful to watch.
Quills runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. from July 19 to 28 at the Overtime Theatre, 5409 Bandera Rd. Suite 205. It is recommended for mature audiences due to its adult language, nudity and themes. It is not recommended for those with sensitive religious beliefs.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online.
Feature photo: Morgan Clyde as Madeleine LeClerc and Joseph Urick as the Marquis de Sade. All photos by Mary Rath.