by Richard Dodds
It is 1808, and all is well in France. Louis XVI is 11 years in his grave, the Reign of Terror is over, and Napoleon Bonaparte has calmed revolutionary turmoil by declaring himself emperor. With the veneer of civic sanity restored, the enlightened director of the asylum at Charenton promotes mental health by encouraging the inmates to stage theatrical entertainments. And to stage these shows, let's see, who do we have? Of course, we must use the Marquis de Sade. Let the sanity begin.
The above words more or less fit historical facts, but the play that de Sade puts on, though based on a pivotal event in the midst of the French Revolution, is part of the canny creation of German-born playwright Peter Weiss. Written in the early 1960s, Marat/Sade remains a remarkably relevant work and retains an almost diabolical theatrical intensity that so dazzled early audiences. And if you are going to let the lunatics run the asylum, you would be hard-pressed to find a better fit than the Thrillpeddlers troupe.
Working with co-producer Marc Huestis, Thrillpeddlers has moved from the tight confines of its Hypnodrome venue to Brava Theatre, where every inch of the vast stage becomes part of the Charenton asylum. While one suspects that this production behaves very differently from the Royal Shakespeare Company original, it is perfectly suited to the style that director Russell Blackwood has developed with Thrillpeddlers in both bloody Grand Guignol spectacles and revivals of Cockettes musicals.
A kind of organized chaos reigns, and the opening-night audience vocally shared in the irreverent merriment spilling from the stage. But when the characters turned serious, and spoke of how easily a revolution can be co-opted and the ease with which the rich always seem to reinherit the earth, Weiss' prescient comments came across loud and eerily clear. One can imagine Broadway audiences in 1964 intellectually connecting with the words, but today the connection is more visceral.
But whose words are these? Peter Weiss is, of course, the final spokesman, but the dialogue is largely the Marquis de Sade's interpretation of historical events and philosophies in his play within the play, and that dialogue is delivered by those whom the state has declared insane. It is time now to give the full title of the play, which offers a matter-of-fact description of the proceedings: 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.
Marat was a major player during the French Revolution, a leader of the radical Jacobins, who endorsed violent retribution against the more moderate Girondists. The stage Marat spends the entire production in a bathtub, in recognition of the balm the actual Marat sought from the skin disease he contracted while hiding from enemies in Paris' sewers. He is murdered while soaking in the tub by the Girondist Charlotte Corday, who is played at Charenton by a patient suffering from melancholia and narcolepsy. Other players must regularly rouse her so she can get through her scenes and finally plant the fatal dagger.
There are, quite clearly, many dramatic layers happening simultaneously, which also include a motley chorus that at regular intervals ambles forward to present one of the Brechtian ballads composed by Richard Peaslee. Scrumbly Koldewyn, a veteran of Cockettes and Thrillpeddlers productions, is the onstage pianist who keeps the musical direction on the circuitous track that playwright Weiss and director Blackwood have laid out.
A huge cast is fully in sync with the production's woozy rhythms, with numerous standout performances. These include Brian Trybom as the pompous and panicky asylum director, Jeff Garrett as the imperious and subversive Marquis de Sade, Bonni Suval as the addled Charlotte Corday, and Aaron Malberg as the passionately philosophizing Marat. They have all been exquisitely and evocatively costumed by Beaver Bauer, and James Blackwood's scenic design pulls you right into the world of a 19th-century asylum.
The scenery includes graffiti evoking the present day, but it is not needed for Marat/Sade to resonate with contemporary audiences. The opportunities to experience this resonance are rare enough, and the production at Brava is an even more rare blend of artistry, dramatic connection, and showbiz pizazz wrapped up as a carefully planted sloppy wet kiss.
Marat/Sade will run at Brava Theatre through July 29. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 863-0611 or go to www.thrillpeddlers.com.