Not for the faint of heart, Doug Wright’s “Quills” reimagines the final days of the Marquis de Sade — territory staked out by Peter Weiss in “Marat/Sade” 30 years ago — as seen through a campy, noirish lens. It’s exuberant theater-making, though not exactly in the sense of “Crazy for You” or “How to Succeed . . .” “Quills” is more like “Titus Andronicus” by way of “Sweeney Todd, ” or “Pulp Fiction” by way of “Carrie”: It’s gory, depraved, revolting and — uh-oh — sentimental. On top of all that, the play has something important to say about censorship and what happens when you try to suppress art (or at least the creative impulse).
The play is set in 1807 at the asylum at Charenton (stunningly realized by designer Neil Patel as a vast, decrepit ruin draped in red velvet and bathed in a wonderfully creepy light by Blake Burba). The Marquis’ wife, Renee (Lola Pashalinski), has come to implore the new doctor in charge (Daniel Oreskes) to silence her prolific husband. Apparently, he has managed to smuggle out a novel “so pornographic it drove men to murder and women to miscarry,” and she cannot bear the ostracism and public humilitation.
The doctor has his own agenda, extorting money from Renee to finance a mansion in a vain attempt to appease his unfaithful wife. Meanwhile, de Sade (Rocco Sisto) sits in his cell writing, the quills of the play’s title providing him with access to the world.
Eventually they are taken away, and the Marquis is forced to devise ever more cunning means to get his stories down. Remove his hands, his feet, his tongue, his manhood — all of which will happen in the course of the evening — and still he will find a way to create, because he must.
The Marquis is sustained by two relationships: a liberal abbe (Jefferson Mays) who never gives up hope that de Sade can be redeemed, but who also proves to be an astute critic and conversationalist, and Madeleine (Katy Wales Selverstone), the laundress who takes his stories home to read to her eager mother, and whom de Sade loves in an almost chaste way.
“Quills” is sensational in every sense of the word. The style of Howard Shalwitz’s production is a gut-wrenching, provocative alliance of Grand Guignol and film noir that owes more than a little to the theater of Charles Ludlam (and perhaps Steven Berkoff).
Yet while the production has several explosive, eye-popping, stomach-churning coups, the biggest of them is literary and involves a pornographic riff by the doctor and the abbe on an innocent story by their famed prisoner. It is testament both to the power of words and to the indomitability of genius — even depraved genius.
Sisto is just spectacular as de Sade, his eyes haunted and leering, his smile chilling yet childlike, his voice declamatory yet ineffably touching. He’s beautifully partnered by Mays’ cleric, who is finally drawn into the horror show and ultimately betrayed, and Selverstone’s country lass. Needless to say, it all ends badly.
“Quills” is smirky, gross-out fun with a purpose. It’s an amazing show.