directed by George Reys
At the Adams House pool Theatre through December 18
The posters are everywhere, and they're expert: one with David's portrait of the dead Marat, in full color; another with a close-up of Marat's head dangling from a severed neck; and yet another with late 18th-century design, reading, "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." The French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat seen through the eyes of the Prince of Perversion himself, the Marquis de Sade. Surely not a boring evening...
Surely not. As the play starts, we find ourselves in the Adams House Pool, where the baroque surroundings seem particularly applicable to this sort of thing. It is 1808, 15 years after the murder of Marat. A row of prison bars separates the audience from the stage, and at center lies the famous bathtub wherein Marat took his last breath. Except, in this tub lies a neurotic asylum patient, playing Marat. And all around him, the large cast of almost 20 twitching, dead-eyed, asylum inmates shuffle about, dressed in dirty white rags, talking to themselves and to their invisible friends. The four-member orchestra looks like heaven's gospel choir, dressed in white bedsheets. They should have worn wings.
Coulmier, the director of the asylum (Seth Richards) introduces the spectacle: his inmates, having been put under the direction of de Sade (David Levine), will be performing an `historical' play about Marat's murder for a public audience as proof of their `rehabilitation.' These inmates come from all walks of life: past revolutionaries, priests and vagrants. Tying the whole messy lot together is a herald (Adam Feldman), who, as the ringmaster for this crew of raving lunatics, introduces each scene as it happens in terse rhyme, prompts the players with their lines and constantly mediates between Coulmier and de Sade, as one pushes for moderation and the other for extremism. And so the mad ride begins.
Marat (Ross Benjamin) is shown lying in his tub as revolution tears up the countryside. Charlotte Corday (Winsome Brown) attempts to assassinate him, and the Marquis constantly drops down from his director's chair to challenge Marat's understanding of and dedication to the Revolution. The Marquis clearly has the upper hand here: it is he who is fully dressed and of strong body, whereas Marat lies rotting in a blood-stained bath; it is he who controls the actions of his cast; and it is he who has written the script.
Marat starts with the support of his countrymen, but his motives for joining and ultimately leading the Revolution are slowly twisted at de Sade's beckoning. His supporters accuse him of joining the Revolution only after having failed to gain fame in the ancien regime, he is shown to be a loser and a power-hungry wretch. In the end, Marat himself is convinced by these torturers of his own base motives. He asks himself, "Each argument was true...and now...why does everything sound so false?" as they cheer him on sarcastically: "Marat for Dictator!" And all the while, there sits Sade, calmly savoring the tortured man's pain.
The play, of course, isn't performed quite like that. These are all asylum patients, remember, and it is with great difficulty and demented idiosyncrasy that they get through scenes, bleating out their lines like brain-dead sheep. Were it not for the anchors which the herald, de Sade, and Coulmier provide, the play would be lost on the same.
Adam Feldman as the herald is much too loud and insistent at first, but calms down significantly after that and becomes the only island of sanity in this turbulent pool. With biting zest, he shows perhaps the only real awareness of his surroundings, and thus provides contrast to the rest of his cast--he sets them up expertly, so that their full abberation can be appreciated. David Levine as the Marquis de Sade speaks in such a laggardly, elephantine voice that some of his more intelligent soliloquies of de Sade's perversions sound unconvincing. He lacks the intensity and the wicked gleam in his eye necessary to persuade us he believes in the ideology of pain he espouses. There is a moment of redemption, however, when, shirtless, he subjects himself to a beating while the prisoners thump the floor methodically in a blood-thirsty crescendo. Then, physically, we feel his lust for pain.
Brown, as the murdress Charlotte Corday, sings in a well-characterized, luxuriously deep voice that is coated in a thin, hard shell of insanity. It is through her masterfully tortured expression that we see the horror of the Revolution in all of its slaughter and inhumanity She asks, "Who is judging?" and at once we see that she has removed herself from the scene, and sees beyond the confines of Charenton.
Benjamin's performance as Marat alternates between indifference and vehemence without reason. He expels his lines with lethargic volume, but does not quite seem to understand the import of his words. The three singers, played by Finn Moore Gerety, Jonathan Weinberg and Rebecca Boggs, are effective and solid, propelling the play forward with energy and style. The patients of the asylum are remarkable in creating boisterous chaos together and for sustaining their small ticks and twitches throughout the two-hour show.
Director George Reyes has woven together some lovely contrasts: in one scene, the cacophonic screaming of 20 maniacs ceases in a split second, and a timid flute melody drifts up into the air like Bambi frightening away Godzilla. The choreography achieves an apt explication of abstract concepts when the three singers illustrate de Sade's case against equality. The "General Copulation" number, however, is a bit too fervent.
In the end, we can't help but wonder whether or not the asylum pretext is a license to disregard the demands of serious acting. The publicity for this show set up something of a false expectation: It's not profound, decadent perversion we get from Marat Sade, but rather sustained novelty and a few snapshots of dementia, something to smile at and walk away from.