written by Peter Weiss; original score by Richard Peaslee
directed by Bretton Reis
produced by The Players' Ring
MARAT/SADE has no answers for you."
So begins the premise of an evening of entertainment at Charenton Asylum, a hospital for the insane on the outskirts of Paris.
Let us assemble the components integral to the telling of the tale. To wit:
- time: a summer night in 1808, nearly a decade since the French Revolution;
- setting: an ornate marble salle de bain within the confines of Charenton, a hospital for the insane on the outskirts of Paris;
- players: the inmates populating Charenton;
- story: the events leading up to the assassination of radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat;
- and finally, our playwright: the enfant terrible of the French aristocracy and diabolically prolific writer Donatien Alphonse François, known far and wide as the Marquise de Sade.
The ambitious title of this intellectual amuse-bouche: "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade", or, as we shall have it from herein, MARAT/SADE.
As to the simple declarative sentence which prefaces director Bretton Reis' program notes, it soon becomes clear that it's a predictor of what's to come: MARAT/SADE does not merely refuse to provide answers, it raises a host of questions about what it is, why it exists, and where it's going.
As a play, MARAT/SADE is deeply flawed; written by German playwright Peter Weiss, it's ostensibly a parable about class warfare, with its central theme of whether revolution stems from a wellspring deep within the human soul, or if it's sparked by external change.
Weiss' story is bloated with flabby interstitials and cursed with a languorous tempo bordering on the comatose. Its action is nihilistic- chaotic, even, and its plot glaringly transparent, giving away far too much, far too soon. Perhaps that's deliberate, but as a choice it ends up offering little in the way of a story arc, character development, conflict or resolution.
Or maybe it's just that all of those elements are so densely layered within the structure of a play-within-a-play that it takes a great deal of concentration to pick them out.
Whether its deficiencies are happenstance or intentionally incorporated, MARAT/SADE is a play which demands a great deal of attention be paid while it unspools in its own gravid, ponderous manner- perhaps too much for the average audience member to sustain a level of disbelief integral to every story.
Even Richard Peaslee's musical score provides little help: while entertaining or at least diverting, the songs in MARAT/SADE are tuneful fillips, not so much furthering the plot or, God forbid, clarifying it, but providing distractions, subtracting more from the action than they add.
Mind you, it's the PLAY which is flawed- not the production. There's a difference, and it's this; director Bretton Reis and his cast are blessed with passion for the piece, and demonstrate an unprecedented level of precision in its telling.
Either they understand the piece is overblown and porcine in its narrative, or they found enough inside of it to spark its engines and drive it forward. They don't try to conceal the cracks in the play's structure, but instead point out that there are too many too count, and that they form a pattern of strange beauty.
That the company does not avoid MARAT/SADE's corpulent mass as it lumbers into the realm of possibility, but instead finds ways to endow it with new energy and life, is laudable. They get right to the meat of the thing, managing to strip out parts which are not just palatable, but succulent with possibility and substance.
Director Reis and his ensemble are sterling examples of a company at the top of its game; by taking on a piece as fractured as MARAT/SADE, they demonstrate that merely because a play is imperfect, it does not follow that it should be feared, or avoided, or that its story is not worth telling.
And tell it this company does, in a way that's deliberate, and poignant, and evocative, and with a through-line of unflinching determination.
In this, the declaration "MARAT/SADE has no answers for you" is transformed from a copout excuse into a starkly unapologetic declaration: "This is what we have to give you, no more and no less: take it, and make of it what you will."
Much like the good Marquis and his cadre of lunatic actors at Charenton do. N'est-ce pas?
This is a fine ensemble. The characters they manifest are spearheaded at either end of the ideological spectrum by the stellar performances of Jennifer Henry (Marat), and Gary Locke (Sade). Indeed, these two lead the charge; literally and figuratively set at cross-purposes, they
present characters who are unnerving in their intent and action.
Henry and Locke present star turns as Marat and Sade; they are profane, blasphemous, impassioned, unswerving in who they are and what they want, and in their respective presences light up the stage as they engage one another with an unending volley of credos and doctrines thrown like firebrands, each in the vain hope that their theories about the will of man, and the pitfalls of a society bent on cannibalizing itself, will annihalate those of the other.
Henry and Locke evince the ultimate stalemate: de Sade, consumed by his own rapacious appetites; Marat, by an insidious skin-rotting disease; de Sade, immured within the walls of an asylum as a result of his political exhortations; Marat, unable to rise from a tub of increasingly foetid water, weighed down by his own rhetoric. Each is wracked to the bone, tortured by their own internalized ideations; neither is able to best the other, and both are incapable of admitting defeat.
It's the ultimate test of wills; should one fall, a large portion of the known world goes with him- or so their conceits lead them to believe. Therefore, neither can fall, unless both do, and as Henry and Locke chart each character's grim courses, one finds oneself unable to avert one's eyes from either actor; their performances are at once morally repugnant, yet marvelously compelling.
Perhaps the real triumph of MARAT/SADE is how it allows Locke and Henry- or, really, all of the actors- to become so immersed in their characters that we who are bearing witness to their onstage exhortations forget that they are acting out a play, about acting out a play, written by one of them; it's almost impossible to tell who holds sway over whom, or where de Sade's play begins and where it ends.
Other standouts in the cast include Tomer Oz as an onanistic Duperret, who walks a thin line between fantasy and reality in his love of Emily Karel's narcoleptically-challenged Charlotte Corday; Molly Dowd Sullivan is the indulgent, somewhat twitterpated asylum director Coulmier, who beleives that creativity among her charges serves a dual purpose; it distracts them and provides an unorthodox therapy which may prove years ahead of its time, thus vaulting her to the recognition she craves; and Cullen DeLangie provides comic relief as MARAT/SADE's herald, essentially midwifing the events as they develop with the hybrid sensibility of a court jester and and bailiff combined.
All other members of the ensemble support well. There are occasions when one or two of the actors come in too hot, or who pull focus with overblown interpretations of character; they'd be better off toning it down a notch, the better to give themselves more places to go with levels of intensity, and more effectively contributing to the story's cohesiveness- what there is of it.
To be fair, it takes a great deal to sustain the kinds of characters integral to MARAT/SADE, as well as the play within it; fortunately the scenery-chewing is kept to a minimum, or eclipsed by the more disciplined members of the ensemble.
Technical and scenic elements are as ambitious in scope as that which the actors put forth; as circumscribed an acting space as The Players Ring is, this company makes the most of every inch of it.
Of particular note: Gina Bowker's richly layered sound design, Michael Ficara's unsettling graphics, and Bretton Reis' superb set and light plot. Top-drawer choreography by Seraphina Caligure, coupled with a captivating musical accompaniament by Patrick Dorow, adds to the evening's pleasure.
Amidst a panoply of disconcerting scenes- this is a work of a man whose lifestyle gave rise to the term "sadism", remember- there is one particular scene involving de Sade which stands out. It's profoundly disturbing in both execution and intent, largely because what happens is engineered by de Sade himself.
You'll know it when you see it; boy, will you. It provokes a very strong reaction as it's carried out, but even as the actions are undertaken, it is evident that the intent is to neither titillate nor repulse, but to serve the play within the context of its themes. Which it does. With startling effect.
Its very inclusion underscores a teachable moment: MARAT/SADE is undeniably a play which you must- MUST- pay attention to, despite its perceived shortcomings. If you don't, the scene in question comes off as profligate and dissolute without anything to back it up. It does NOT come off that way- but ONLY if you're paying attention.
So, yes- MARAT/SADE keeps its promise by not providing any answers for you, but if you concentrate, rise above its chaotic suppositions and keep your eye on what the inmates of Charenton do with the macabre story penned for them by a decidedly heteroclite Marquis de Sade, the chances are excellent that you'll come away with an entire buffet of questions to savor on your way out- and in this, MARAT/SADE succeeds in its mission, most admirably. See it.
MARAT/SADE runs through April 12, 2015 at The Players Ring. Click the logo below for details.
Michael J. Curtiss is a writer and playwright residing in Southern NH. When not acting as a freelance theatre critic, he oversees online marketing and social media for Costumes of Nashua LLC & Creative Costuming, based in Hudson, NH, and administers THE GRANITE STAGE page on Facebook.