French Diss

Has it really been three years since I last saw a production of 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? It seems like only yesterday I was trying to stay awake during Peter Weiss' tragic reenactment of the final hours of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Huh.

I hate this play. It's not that it isn't cleverly written, or that I've never seen a production of Marat/Sade (as it's typically known) that was nicely directed or contained a worthy performance or two. In fact, Off Center Productions' current version, now playing at Theater Works in Peoria, isn't half bad, if you can stand this sort of thing.

I guess I'm a rube, because I find most classical theater utterly tedious. Marat/Sade is no exception. It sounds interesting enough, on paper: Told in free verse, this is the world's longest play-within-a-play, all about the Marquis de Sade during the time he was imprisoned at Charenton Asylum in the early 19th century. Apparently, during his incarceration, the infamous aristocrat wrote and staged plays featuring his fellow inmates. The one we're watching makes folly of the murder of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat at the hands of the lovely Charlotte Corday. Corday is portrayed by a narcoleptic; Jacques Roux, a defrocked priest, by a psychotic in a clerical straitjacket; and Marat himself by a paranoiac strapped into a hydrotherapy tub.

Who needs Ambien when you can sit in a room and listen to these people recite bland poetry for three hours? Marat/Sade's tedium is not confined to its monologues, crazy-guy reenactments, and the occasional tuneless song. Despite all that clever writing, it's a play that essentially repeats the same idea over and over again: Someone forces an inmate to act or sing, then says or does something mean to them that causes them to act like a crazy person. There's more drooling and grunting in this show than in a maternity ward.

Apparently, Franc Gaxiola is the only actor in town who can play Jean-Paul Marat; he had the role in the last production I saw, too. I remember liking his performance last time, but this time, I became concerned that Gaxiola's face would stay scrunched up in the jittery scowl he wears throughout this play. He's tended to by Andrea Tripodi, whose hours of slobbering and stuttering made me want to scream, "We get it! You're crazy! Now go sit down!"

You can get away with a lot when you present this play, because it's supposed to be acted by crazy people who aren't actors, but this production actually offers a couple of worthwhile performances. Director Wes Martin's lovely, warm voice and round, shiny head help bring the Marquis to life, but he and all the other players were upstaged by Steve Hamma, whose trussed-up turn as Jacques Roux was something to behold. He bellowed his speech about feeding the poor and converting the churches with more oomph than all the other players combined, and that's saying a lot considering the size of the cast and all the scenery-gobbling they were doing.

I'm all for smaller community theaters doing smarter plays, but classical theater has its place. Will Marat/Sade play in Peoria? No. Emphatically, no.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela