Millennium's 'Marat-Sade' Is A Real Riot...Dress Appropriately
By Mari Wadsworth
FIRST, THERE WAS a lot of wailing and torment. After awhile, various Frenchmen of questionable sanity assumed control and imposed a sense of order amidst the chaos. Death, a great deal of writing, and some singing followed. Eventually, a man in military costume took control and things seemed to be looking up for everyone. But just when it seemed the carnage was at an end, more violence broke out, the final blow landing on the head of an innocent, and those who observed this were moved to question power relationships and the resulting paradox of how some of the worst atrocities in history sprang from the most noble of intentions.
For those a little rusty on their history, that's an overview of the French Revolution. Consider it a spotty "Cliff's Notes" version. It's also a summary of Millennium Theatre Company's The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, As Performed By the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, the play in which those actual events, as well as a slew of fictional ones, are brought to the stage.
Millennium, which is still cutting its teeth on Tucson stages, is boldly determined to present local audiences with challenging productions. And certainly, Peter Weiss' Marat-Sade fills the bill for audience and company alike. Weiss, a German Marxist, originally wrote the play in German in 1964, somewhere around the time he emigrated to the United States. His subsequent work was a strong critique of the Vietnam War, a subject which may or may not have provided grist for the challenging questions he raises: His play within a play is an exhaustive, though often exhilarating, search for meaning. It clearly advocates revolutionary change, but presents also the painful, larger picture of the violence such change inflicts, and the transitory nature of power politics wherein today's noble cause is tomorrow's treason, and vice versa.
In a rare moment of clarity, his Marat says to the audience, "The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair; to turn yourself inside out and see the whole world with fresh eyes."
Under the best of circumstances, Weiss' Marat-Sade is a difficult two acts to follow. In the hands of Millennium's mixed cast, it's a difficult play made all the more difficult by its younger actors' uncertainty with their lines, their characters' dual-roles as inmates and actors, and their shaky confidence in their ability to pull off the whole endeavor. They do, however, put on a brave show. And at times, a fairly good one.
Marat-Sade opens in a bath house in the French asylum of Charenton, in 1808. Its white tile walls and gray institutional floor are spattered and smeared; and various inmates sit on benches or on the floor, on stage and off, rocking, shrieking and otherwise engaging the audience in their dementia and neuroses. Marat's bath is positioned at center stage, along with a podium representing the National Convention. To the right is a dais where the Marquis de Sade (played by Dean Hepker) observes the stage as both lead actor and director; to the left, the asylum's director, Coulmier (Leonard Rodriguez), also observes, interrupting to cue both audience and players as to when the revolutionary rhetoric has gone too far, and the historical revision not far enough.
It's helpful to know that in 1808, when the play opens, Napoleon Bonaparte is at the height of his power, and France is once again engaged in war, this time with the rest of the European continent rather than with itself.
You might also be interested to know that Jean-Paul Marat (played by Scott Seitzberg) was a Swiss-born doctor who became a French revolutionary politician. He was a Jacobin, the less radical wing of the aristocrats who started the revolt of 1787, and he became widely revered and hated for publishing The Friend of the People, a radical journal of opinion. The play recounts the final months of Marat's life, spent dying of a skin disease in his bath, until Charlotte Corday's dagger speeds up the process.
Corday, played by a buxom young narcoleptic (Suzan Newman), is a Girondin supporter. It's helpful to know that Marat, just before his unfortunate death at the hands of Corday, was locked in political battle with the Girondins, a more militant segment of the French Convention of 1792-1795. The Girondist deputies, as represented by the character Dupperet, an inmate described as an "erotomaniac" (played to hilarious effect by Robert Gleeman), were sympathetic to the provinces rather than Paris. This put them on bad terms with Robespierre, who assumed power directly following the assassination of Marat, and ushered in the infamous Reign of Terror (1793-94) by sending the Girondins--and just about everybody else--to the guillotine.
All of this is explained very quickly in a clever little song midway through the second act; but if you weren't in the first row, you might have missed it, owing to the singers' regrettable tendency to fall out of sync with the recorded music, and with each other, and thus sing quietly, perhaps hoping not to draw too much attention to themselves. Even if the actors rendered their lines perfectly, a few historical notes in the playbill would be helpful in orienting contemporary audiences to the action--and absurdity--on stage.
What is not explained is that the Marquis de Sade, though a contemporary of Marat and for a brief period a minor political figure in France's revolutionary years, had no real historical relationship to the former. As an interesting aside, he was the only prisoner liberated at that highpoint of the bourgeois uprising, the storming of the Bastille (the rest having been evacuated previously). He did, however, actually die, insane, at Charenton. In the play, he's portrayed in failing health, six years before his actual death in 1814.
The entire cast--23 actors portraying inmates portraying fictional characters based on real ones--inhabit the stage simultaneously. As if that isn't enough, Weiss has structured the action around every conceivable theatrical device: His narrating Herald (admirably rendered by Gary Dooley) speaks in verse; the conversation between Marat and Sade is strictly didactic; his secondary characters (Dupperet, Corday) employ free verse; his taunting chorus of singers (five in all, painted like harlequins and clad in revolutionary costume) tend toward the absurdist, and pull tricks out of the Theatre of Cruelty bag.
Everything about Marat-Sade is designed to overwhelm, to shock, to be contradictory and delightfully confusing. Most assuredly, it is. After its London debut, literary critic Peter Brook writes, "Everything about this play is designed to crack the spectator on the jaw, then douse him with cold water, then force him to assess intelligently what has happened to him."
We considered Brooks' words carefully, amazed at how accurately they described our own experience. In the same prismatic spirit of the play itself, the final scene has the fictional actors (much like the actual actors) increasingly lose control of the action, leaving them to run amok, the director having abdicated. It's interesting and nerve-jangling, and ends with the unfortunate consequence of the real-life reviewer getting hit in the head with a chair. It wasn't a terrible blow; but a significant one (mostly averted by the fact that she was cringing and ducking). This could be considered the mark of a bad play. But the play isn't bad; nor are the players. They're just somewhat out of control.
Millennium director John Gunn says he's looking forward to their next production, Lion in Winter, because "it only has seven actors." Having survived Marat-Sade, we can certainly empathize. There's no question that both cast and director have ambitious goals and an admirable willingness to reach beyond their capabilities. So far, what they've achieved is bold for community theatre, but not up to par for a professional company. With their next production, they're well advised to remember less is more.
As for Marat-Sade, there's much to recommend it. With a few more performances under their belts, and an audience armed with a little historical background, it promises an interesting night at the theater. But you might want to consider sitting in at least the second row.
Marat-Sade, a Millennium Theatre production, continues through November 2 at the Historic YWCA Theater, 738 N. Fifth Ave. Curtain is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors. Dress in French Revolutionary costume for the October 31 performance and enjoy free admission. Call 882-7920 for reservations and information.
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