- by Peter Weiss
- Directed by Michael Dove
- Produced by Forum Theatre Company
- Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Walk through a paranoia-inducing, chain-link, floor-to-ceiling fenced cage to be seated next to a thrust stage where actors scream, writhe on the floor, stand and stare and circle a bathtub. Suddenly, one of the keepers padlocks the door behind us. We can’t get out.
But don’t worry, the lunatics won’t attack. Marat/Sade is a play-within-a-play. The frame story takes place in 1808, when Napoleon was emperor for life. The notorious Marquis de Sade, (Jonathon Church), is enacting for invited French aristocrats, “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat,” his play that looks backward to July 1793, the year Louis XVI was beheaded and Marat was assassinated. This play about revolution, power and its abuses is well under the control of patriotic Dr.Coulmier (Steve Beall), the director of the Charenton Insane Asylum.
Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. But German playwright Peter Weiss, who lived through post-WW II angst, wanted to shock us with outrageous satire when he premiered Marat/Sade in 1964 London. When it came to New York two years later, it won four Tony awards (in Peter Brook’s production). Its terse Brechtian-style dialogue, world-weary lyrics and audience-addressed soliloquies, address social issues that still ring true today.
Danny Gavigan plays Marat as a haunted, Christ-like visionary and freedom fighter. Draped in a sheet, anchored in his bathtub, Marat writes his well-known pamphlets on freedom and slavery, advocating redistribution of seized church land. Somewhat a radical Marxist, Marat is puzzled by the ongoing violence he’s unleashed. Because of a painful, itching skin disease, he requires constant bathing from his mistress Simonne (Helen Pafumi), who compulsively wraps and unwraps his white head bandage. Four years out from the 1789 French Revolution, not much has changed. Already the do-nothing, new bourgeois leaders, the unproductive farms, fill the disciples with hunger and discontent. So, Marat rises and extends his arms as if on a crucifix, suggesting the need for sacrifice for a counter-revolution.
Enter Marat’s polar opposite, the exiled Marquis de Sade (Jonathon Church), the genius author of pornographic books, the bizarre sexual practitioner, whose name inspired the word sadism. Marat and Sade once stood united as fighters against the old regime. Now the collectivist and the individualist have parted paths.
The play’s action evolves out of their philosophical debates about right and wrong; how the revolution has gone wrong. Sade, played by Church with a cool cynicism, starts out reasonably, arguing for avoiding mobs and expressing the self in passionate individual acts. But Sade’s treatise turns to the dark side of sexual extremism and murder. Socrates’ famous dictum “Know Thyself” has been perverted into “I believe only in myself.” What is scary is that Sade’s me-first ethic is contagious among the other inmates. Humanity in the plural sense is a sick joke.
Meanwhile, Marat clings to aging refrains of “I am the Revolution,” for mass movements. He still inspires the street people, like the radical hothead and priest, Jacques Roux, played by Eric Messner who delivers a stirring highpoint: “Woe to the man who is different” in a mass movement, at the end of Act I.
Katy Carkuff, as the melancholia-afflicted Charlotte Corday, is a forceful presence as a comatose sleep-walker with a dagger. Carkuff drifts on and off stage but can be frightening with a whip in her hands. From landed gentry, Corday left a convent to join the youthful idealism of the Revolution as a Girondist. Her last soliloquy near the end of the play when she shares with us what it feels like to have your head lopped off by a guillotine blade sends shudders to the spine. Especially when the realization hits that her stabbing of Marat helped set off the Reign of Terror.
So who was right? Marat or Sade? Did the French Revolution accomplish anything? Are the people any better off? What is freedom? Peter Weiss requires the use of his lyrics to work through the answers.
But, unlike his contemporary Samuel Beckett, Weiss frees individual composers to create their own score. The music by local composer, and music director, Jesse Terrill (who also plays the Herald), is unlike any other. Generally, Terrill’s score is an asset, not a distraction, but hits highpoints with a sweetly ironic round, sung in three-part harmony, about the cyclical nature of revolutions. Also, “We want our Revolution NOW,” set to martial rhythms, chanted and sung by a stamping Chorus is effective, as is “We’re beheading them all (1793),” sung by the chorus holding up placards with the names of the guillotine victims, one by one.
Director Michael Dove, also artistic director of Forum Theatre, has done a fine job staging an ambitious project with a huge cast, but needs to hype his actors to exaggerate their delivery, to needle us more with the bitter disillusionment they already convey. It’s all in the lines and lyrics, aptly translated by Geoffrey Skelton. We need to hear every nuance of every word, every cruelty, every lyric, or the voice of reason gets lost in the violence. That’s the only flaw.
Go and be terrified by this not often produced, memorable masterpiece.
- Running Time: About 2 hours plus one 15 minute intermission
- When: Closes Sunday, August 10, 2008. Thursdays through Saturday, 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (extra shows Sunday, July 27 at 7:00 p.m., Saturdays, August 2, and 9 at 2:00 p.m.. OpenForum post-show discussions 7/24, 7/31, and 8/10 matinee.)
- Where: H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street, N.E., Washington D.C. 20002.
- Tickets: $18 to $20. Click here. Marat/Sade
- Info: call 202-255-1065
[Editor’s note: Eric Messner and Jesse Terrill have contributed interesting interviews to Scene Stealers 2]