Say You Want a Revolution

The nice folks at the Shakespeare Theatre have had the courage and temerity to attempt playwright Peter Weiss' 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 is, as you might imagine from the title (which is usually shortened to Marat/Sade), about the Marquis de Sade, who, while imprisoned at Charenton Asylum in the early 19th century, writes and directs a play starring his fellow inmates. De Sade's play makes folly of the final hours of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat before he was murdered by lovely Charlotte Corday, which sounds fanciful unless you know that de Sade did in fact write and cast plays that were performed in Charenton, where he was actually incarcerated. It's a story that's meant to upset its audience in the same way de Sade's play-within-a-play troubles the asylum inmates who perform in it. In their play, de Sade and his fellow loonies portray the revolutionary times and re-create the infamous murder that happened 15 years before. Corday is portrayed by a narcoleptic; Jacques Roux, a defrocked priest, by a psychotic in a clerical straitjacket; and Marat himself by a paranoiac.

The play is built around a debate between social revolution and conformity; individual freedom and creativity. The director of the asylum represents the post-revolution hopefuls, with de Sade taking on the darker truths about the nature of revolution, and power and its abuses -- all of it couched in commentary about how little things had changed since Marat's murder.

The story is told in free verse, punctuated with some brief but annoying musical numbers, written as singsongy nursery rhymes and backed, in this production, by tinny, prerecorded synth music that reminded me of the stuff heard on a public television kiddy show -- sort of sadomasochism meets the Wiggles. Which isn't to say that there aren't things about this enormously ambitious production worth liking. Wes Martin's well-paced direction keeps the long, dense story chugging along, although his blocking of the huge cast was a little too symmetrical for my taste. (Still, his preshow, during which the madhouse inmates are rounded up and readied for their roles, is especially smart. And the play's final moments, when the inmates riot, raping various cast members, was the high point of the evening.)

Franc Gaxiola turns in an admirable performance as Marat, one that's all the more impressive when you consider that he's confined to a hydrotherapy tub throughout. Charles Sohn's interpretation of de Sade takes the cleverness of the play's language to a considerably more poetic level. I thought Wolfram Ott's clown makeup for the wacko chorus was inspired, and Martin's stunt casting of identical twin guards was perfectly creepy.

The trouble with Marat/Sade has nothing to do with the cast or direction of this production. It's the conceit of the play itself that has me rolling my eyes every time I see it. The notion that profoundly mentally ill people will stand still for two-plus hours, waiting to hit their marks and say their lines (and always dropping their various nervous tics after they've left their place in the spotlights), is absurd, even for an absurdist drama like this one. Marat/Sade is a tough entertainment -- a long, wordy play full of oddly translated text. Fans of classical theater or French history might well like this; anyone looking for light diversion, beware.

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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