nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 15, 2006
A work as daunting as its title suggests, 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 is surely a rarity on any stage these days. So bravo to Push Productions for having the audacious vision to show us this huge pageant of a play and really give it its due: 21 actors, three musicians, an original score, and an elaborate though smartly spare design, all under the guidance of director Michael Kimmel. They're giving us a chance to see this black comedy by German playwright Peter Weiss, and to understand its place in our dramatic heritage and to evaluate how it might resonate some 42 years after it was written.
Marat/Sade (as it is known) is precisely what its long title announces: it's set in a French insane asylum where the 68-year-old notorious writer/hedonist the Marquis de Sade has been incarcerated, and its conceit is that de Sade has written and staged a play re-enacting the life and death of the French Revolutionist Jean-Paul Marat. (After the storming of the Bastille, Marat was one of the leaders of the new French government, but later adopted increasingly harsh policies; he was murdered in his bathtub, as depicted in the famous painting by David.)
The year is 1808 and Napoleon is at the height of his power; through his story of Marat, de Sade explores the dangers of despotism and conformity—and through the interplay of the sensualist de Sade and the moralist Marat, Weiss delves even deeper into the same thematic territory. The genius of Weiss's concept is the layering of contemporary observations onto historical ones, so that the play-within-the-play's frequent railings against oppression and for liberty may be read as (a) inmates earnestly wishing for freedom from the repressive mental institution where they're imprisoned; (b) Marat's followers and opponents, playing out the issues of the French Revolution; (c) thinly veiled protests against Napoleon's regime; (d) thinly veiled protests against Hitler's and other recent (in 1964) fascist regimes; and even, in Kimmel's interpretation, (e) thinly veiled protests against policies of our current government.
But the content of Marat/Sade, compelling though it is, is not even the half of this show. Weiss exploits his asylum setting to turn a theatre into a madhouse and a madhouse into a circus. This is the stuff of Brecht's epic theatre, and I wonder how jolting and exciting it might have been four decades ago when Brecht's work was still new and not so densely explored. Kimmel does an admirable job putting this show on its feet, but he can't surprise his audience the way that Peter Brook could when Marat/Sade premiered on Broadway, and that's a shame: in terms of structure and form, the play almost feels dated, its innovations and inventions having become so commonplace.
But there's still much to impress us in this production, starting with Scott O'Brien's harsh, dissonant score, which is splendidly rendered by three on-stage musicians, Adam Kielman (accordion), Jonathan Levy (percussion), and Mike Lunapiena (cello). Rachel Klein has choreographed the show's many musical numbers to point up their function (as in a Brecht play) as music-hall-style commentary on whatever points are being raised in the main text. Ben Kato's set and lighting design make excellent use of the open but technically under-equipped Access Gallery space (no wings, not too many lighting instruments) to provide an appropriately institutional yet anarchic environment for the piece.
The large cast works energetically and well together; their individual abilities vary, though, in mastering the show's central premise (a difficult acting challenge, I think: to convince us that they are insane and that they are the historical figures they're called upon to portray in de Sade's presumed play). The clear standout is Caitlin Mulhern as the narcoleptic inmate who takes the role of Charlotte Corday, Marat's assassin; she straddles the line of insanity/clarity quite brilliantly, exemplifying Weiss's central theme quite deftly. Also noteworthy are Jona Tuck as Marat's nurse Simonne, Kit Williamson as a strait-jacketed patient who plays the rabble-rouser Socialist Jacques Roux, and Alan Jestice who, though nowhere near de Sade's actual advanced age, nevertheless makes the writer a compelling, complicated figure.