It's in the nature of things that a young theatre's reach should sometimes exceed its grasp. In fact, that's the way things should be. But I'm afraid Quills, Doug Wright's dark fantasia on the - uh - "irrepressible" Marquis de Sade, proves more than a stretch for the up-and-coming Bad Habit Productions, one of the "Cambridge Fringe" companies working out of the YMCA in Central Square.
The production does boast a charismatic lead performance from Timothy Otte as the gleefully perverted Marquis. But Quills requires much more than a single star turn - ghoulish as it is, it's essentially a black farce in slow motion that demands a high sense of style in both performance and design. And while there are glimmers of talent here and there in the generally fresh-faced cast, there's very little of what you might call mature control (one actor attempts a French accent, for example, while everyone else sounds American - except for one other newcomer, who goes slightly British now and then). Meanwhile the set is half-baked, and the costumes kind of inexplicable (they seem to float between multiple periods). The whole thing feels like a well-intentioned college production - appropriate to friends and family only, I'd say; but to any one else, it might seem positively sadistic.
In case you're unfamiliar with the play, it's a history piece that plays so fast and loose with history that it's essentially fantasy. It's well known that the Marquis spent his last years in the asylum of Charenton; Wright's conceit is that the hospital's administration set about trying to silence de Sade through any means possible - including eventual dismemberment. Of course nothing like this happened to the Marquis at all; perhaps the most horrifying thing about his whole career is that he died peacefully in his bed - and what's more, Wright's tormented torturer, the Abbe de Coulmier (Eric Hamel) was, in real life, one of de Sade's protectors, not punishers.
Oh, well, what are a few historical facts, I suppose, when you're bent on simplistic propaganda, as Wright is here. Having suffered through both Justine and Philosophy of the Bedroom in college, I have few illusions about the Marquis as an avatar of freedom; his sexual peccadilloes all depended on coercion or actual incarceration, and while modern types like to think of him as advocating something like today's voluntary S&M scene, he was actually more into sewing up vaginas that had been infected with syphilis and ejaculating over freshly murdered corpses. He wasn't so much an existentialist as an obsessive sociopath, and hardly a libertine but rather a slave to his own compulsions.
Wright's point, however, is that those who would control (or eradicate) the Marquis's savage impulses will inevitably become as monstrous as he. Fair enough; but does it really require over two and a half hours of stage time to make this rather obvious case? Apparently; but we tire of his slow, steady march toward the inevitable well before Quills reaches its climax (which does, I must admit, include a memorably creepy coup de théâtre). And it doesn't help that most of the cast has trouble declaiming the playwright's labored attempt at period speech.
There is, it's true, Otte's performance to enjoy; his high spirits buoy much of the play, and he seems utterly unfazed by his lengthy stretches of nude repartee. Even he, however, doesn't quite suggest the relentlessness of de Sade's obsessions - which might have helped Eric Hamel, who's thoughtful, but not much more, in the difficult role of the Abbe (a part I confess I've never seen come off). As the Marquis's "love" interest, Jenny Reagan also shows some potential, but I think should have a bit more avid energy. The rest of the cast struggles, in various modes and keys. Bad Habit had a recent success in their witty "drag" version of Wilde's An Ideal Husband (a production which will soon be reproduced up at Gloucester Stage); which may have led them to believe they were up for any kind of exercise in high style. But alas, where Wilde glitters, Wright lumbers, and as a result, this production of Quills sometimes feels like a kind of children's crusade.