The deconstruction and reconception of Marat/Sade as performed by the members of the American Repertory Theatre (and their fellow inmates from the A.R.T./MXAT Institute) under the direction of Janos Szasz makes one wonder what all the fuss was about when Peter Brooks' RSC production took New York by storm in 1966.
Playwright Peter Weiss, emulating Bertolt Brecht's political use of the stage, had an agenda when The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade premiered in West Berlin in 1964. To create a clash between the associated costs and dangers of social change and the freedom of the individual, he brought together historic figures from the French Revolution (the radicalized doctor/scientist Jean-Paul Marat and his political assassin Charlotte Corday) and the notorious Marquis de Sade.
Weiss' conceit was to create a clash of their philosophical ideologies by making Marat the subject of de Sade's final production at Charenton, where he had been committed for pushing the envelope of Rousseau's "enlightenment." As we learned from Quills, these amateur theatricals performed by the inmates were encouraged by the enlightened administration of the asylum and became a hot ticket for the curious members of the Parisian aristocracy.
Szasz rounds up the usual suspects for his production. We get A.R.T. and Boston/Cambridge regulars Jeremy Geidt as Coulmier (the asylum director), Will LeBow as Marat, Karen MacDonald as his nurse, Alvin Epstein as the Herald, Benjamin Evett as Roux and Paula Plum as one of the inmates. They are joined by other company members who occasionally get released for good behavior to appear elsewhere: Thomas Derrah (de Sade), Stephanie Roth-Haberle (Corday) and John Douglas Thompson (Duperret). A mix of additional company members and students from the Institute's class of 2002 play the rest of the inmates and hospital personnel. The director puts most of them in acting straight jackets by insisting that the audience remain aware that the play within a play is an amateur production being performed by lunatics.
Marat/Sade is a musical, and the biggest disappointment is the inadequate performance of Richard Peaslee's songs. The musicians, dressed as inmates, play the score well, but the singing onstage is inarticulate and inept. Choreography contributed by Csaba Horvath (credited for movement and assistant direction) is no more satisfying most of the time.
Szasz places his own political agenda on top of that already provided by Weiss. Coulmier oversees the performance as an anachronistic Dr. Strangelove figure in a motorized wheelchair. The set by Riccardo Hernandez, representing the Charenton baths where Weiss set his play, has more stainless steel than a high-end kitchen renovation. Additional trappings meant to suggest the extremes to which Nazism pushed some of Marat's ideas, provide a much less enlightened form of treatment than was actually practiced at Charenton.
In fact, this particular production of Marat/Sade may set drama therapy back years. Szasz imposes his own ending on the play, radically different from what was written by Weiss or superimposed by Brooks. The final moments are spectacular but don't engage the audience to either embrace or reject any of the ideas set forth in the course of the evening. The message one is left with is this: don't let crazy people put on a play.
May I recommend the following to satisfy your own curiosity? For a sample of the music try the "Marat/Sade Suite" on Judy Collins' album In My Life. To see what Peter Brooks was up to, rent the DVD of his movie version (in widescreen/ letterbox format) or check it out at the Harvard Film Archive on Sunday, March 17th at 7:00pm. If you want to know why the A.R.T. did what they did, try the pre-performance discussion on Sunday, March 17th at 6pm or the Marat/Sade Seminar, free and open to the public, at the Loeb Drama Center at 8pm the following evening.
Presented by the American Repertory Theatre, Robert Brustein, Artistic Director, in repertory with Adam Rapp's Stone Cold Dead Serious now through March 17th at the Loeb Drama Center, 54 Brattle St., Cambridge, MA. Tickets available at the Loeb Drama Center box office, by phone at (617) 547-8300 or online at http://www.amrep.org/.