Political Asylum

Marat/Sade directed by Kerry Konrad at the Loeb Mainstage, today at 5 and 9

ABOUT TWO HOURS before curtain, the as in the original Broadway production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade would take their places on stage. There, they would begin to concentrate on their own nervous habits--biting fingernails, wringing hands, pulling hair--and gradually exaggerate the habits so that even before the show began, the audience viewed them as the lunatics Weiss meant them to portray.

Kerry Konrad's Loeb production of Marat/Sade uses the same technique. From the moment the house opens, the actors are on stage, ad-libbing their roles as mental patients. Marat/Sade is perhaps the ultimate play-within-a-play, with the inmates of an insane asylum outside Paris portraying the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a left-wing journalist-leader of the French Revolution, under the direction of fellow-inmate Marquis de Sade. The audience finds itself assuming two roles: on the one hand, we are the French intellectuals of 1808 who are watching the inmates, and on the other, we are ourselves, watching the re-enactment of Marat's death, the inmates performing the play, and the French intellectuals' response to the whole thing.

Weiss's play is not an easy one to understand; as the story unfolds, the layers go deeper and deeper, with nuance upon nuance adding to its complexity. On one level, it is about the contrast between Marat, the revolutionary trapped in a bathtub by skin disease, and Sade, who denounces the French downtrodden's uprising in favor of a more passionate kind of violence. On another, the play is about the thin line between sanity and lunacy: the inmates' presentation of the world seems less and less crazy as their play progresses. On yet another level, it is about the class struggle, and how the upper classes inevitably force a return to the status quo.

There is no easy moral here, Sade tells the audience at the end of the play. He is left "with a question that's always open," unable to decide between Marat's attempts to enforce justice with the guillotine, and his own efforts to change the world through exploring the individual psyche. Answers to the questions in the other levels of the play are no more forthcoming, and in the end, the audience sees not answers but chaos. The lunatics take over, and the asylum's guards can only create order with their clubs.

THE LOEB PRODUCTION of Marat/Sade brings out most of the play's ambiguities. As Marat, Thomas Myers carefully outlines the transition from the asylum's paranoid to its demagogue, calling from his tub to the mobs of Paris. His is not an easy role: it is difficult to play a strong character whose body is so weak, and few Marats really compete with their counterpart Sade. As Sade, George Miller is the clear star of the Loeb show, presenting his cynical vision of humanity with great stage presence.

The contrast between the two men can only develop as the show moves on, as Marat emerges as more than simply another lunatic in the inmates' production. But the tension between the two--between the man who sees violence as the solution to inequality and the man who considers it the outcome of an essential bestiality--is basic to Weiss's script, and the Loeb production is fortunate in having two outstanding actors in the roles.

While they are not perhaps so powerful as the two main leads, the rest of the cast is generally of an equally high caliber. As the Herald, Jonathan Prince provides the closest thing to sanity in the play; he is almost a Shakespearean jester, providing a sarcastic, witty window into the inmates' world. Prince is perfect in the role, pointing out the foibles of first, the inmates, then the director, never clearly on one side or the other. The four alcoholics who provide a musical Greek chorus to Marat's saga are also good in the not-quite-organized fashion of the insane. Their songs (including "Poor Old Marat" and others that Judy Collins has made famous outside the theater) and pantomimes keep the show from dragging, as they comment on the play's action, the success of the revolution, and Marat's impending murder.

The two lead women in the play--Charlotte Corday (Sarah Jane Norris), the upperclass young woman who murders Marat in his bath, and Simone (Robin Leidner), who keeps him alive until Corday's final blow--are both perhaps slightly too intense at the beginning to permit their characters to develop. The trick in Weiss's Marat/Sade is that the players must grow in the course of the play, gradually changing from lunatics to historical figures, blending one element into the other. Norris is a brilliant Corday at first, but because she begins her part with too much tension, she has nowhere to go by the second half of the play. Persian rugs always include a mistake in the pattern, as the flaw that makes the whole perfect: the women may provide that flaw, since their emotional intensity does not seriously detract from the production, and underlines the cast's general ability to deal with the subtleties of Weiss's script.

ONE OF THE UNIQUE FEATURES of Marat/Sade is the constant presence of lunatics, not directly involved in the reenactment of Marat's death. They remain on stage, becoming the illustration of all that Marat and Sade discuss--they are the Parisian poor, rightfully indignant against injustice in Marat's eyes, depraved in Sade's. The asylum guards are there, too, to underline the absurdity of the statement by the asylum director (Stephen Toope) that everything has changed, that Napoleon has brought demands for liberty, equality and brotherhood to fruition.

It is a difficult piece of direction, to keep the constantly active inmates from stealing the audience's attention, but Konrad manages it with grace. His lunatics are rather more rambunctious than those in most productions, sometimes treading a thin line betwen serious insanity and clowning. They move around David Moore's beautifully designed set--a series of planks and platforms that suggest the structure of the asylum without distracting--rather like fish in an aquarium, only occasionally giving a hint that it is all carefully choreographed. The inmates are engaging, as Weiss meant them to be; by the end of the show, our sympathies are entirely with them, rather than with the asylum director--representing, as he does, the power of the state over the poor.

Marat/Sade is one of the classics of recent theater, a Brechtian presentation of the dilemmas facing the modern left. Its complexities are enormous, but not so overwhelming that the audience cannot enjoy its lighter moments. Tonight is the last time the Loeb will run this production, and really, it is far too good to miss.