There is nothing more enervating, or even fatal, to theater than habit, which leeches plays of their vitality and muffles their existential inquiry. This applies as much to the habits of the audience as to those of playwrights and performers. As though bound by an unspoken and accidental pact, all three have collaborated, for their own reasons, in something like a gentle killing — a smothering by down pillow — of the play-going experience. The audience, lightly buzzed from dinner, arrives at the theater; the stage anticipates, with its conspicuous abstraction or documentary verisimilitude, the limits and possibilities of the action to come; the actors emerge and strike familiar postures while declaiming their lines with predictable cadence; and the play itself offers a thin dramatization of humanist ideals vis-à-vis the battle of the individual against society, or a Freudian analysis of the individual at war with himself. For coming, the audience is rewarded with a sense of having participated in a rarified cultural experience. Never mind that the experience is so bland; the evening has been so pleasant.
And then there is Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade,” boldly directed by Bretton Reiss at The Players’ Ring in Portsmouth, which makes no effort to insinuate itself into the arc of a pleasant evening. The play is noisy, chaotic, and profane. What little plot it has is outlined in the first few lines of dialogue — in rhyming couplets, no less — and the climax is nearly spelled out in the title. Despite these guideposts, the play remains elusive and puzzling, unresponsive to habitual ways of seeing. It is unafraid of madness and ambiguity, making few sacrifices to that overbearing god of local theater, relevance. (Its one concession, late in the play, constitutes the show’s only real failure.) Dispensing with the niceties — or, rather, the blandishments — of most theater, it instead provokes and incites, an intellectual acid in place of theater’s customary salve. “Marat/Sade” was caustically exhilarating when it was first produced in the 1960s; it remains so today.
“Marat/Sade” is a destabilizing marvel,
a hall of distorting mirrors.
The play itself is a destabilizing marvel, a hall of distorting mirrors. The inmates of the Charenton asylum, a real institution founded in the mid-17th century, are performing a play written and directed by their fellow patient, the libertine hedonist and proto-existentialist Marquis de Sade (Gary Locke, lubricious but rarely threatening), about the last days of the fiercely idealistic French revolutionary, Jean-Paul Marat (Jennifer Henry). Tormented by a skin disease, Marat is confined to the cooling water of his bathtub, where he is eventually assassinated by Charlotte Corday (Emily Karel), who fears the revolution’s radical direction.
The inmates’ performance has been permitted by the asylum’s putatively progressive director, Mme. Coulmier (the brittle Molly Dowd Sullivan), on the understanding that it will serve a dual purpose: to aid in her wards’ therapy, and to reinforce their allegiance to the French Empire, which has, she repeatedly scolds, put barbarism, war, and inequality behind it. But de Sade’s play, which pits Marat’s commitment to sweeping social change against de Sade’s own ideology of the individual, is inflammatory rather than palliative, and she and the orderlies must continually interrupt the easily riled performers to restore order. Even the assured dramaturgy and patronizing narration of Herald (played with eloquence and reserve by Cullen DeLangie) cannot keep things under control. Though the revolution has been settled in name, its motivating sentiments still seethe; by the end of Weiss’ play, they have erupted anew in an orgiastic spasm of violence.
There is so much about “Marat/Sade” that cannot be explored adequately in a short review, like the effect of the double role that most of the actors play, as both inmates in the asylum and the character in the internally staged drama that each inmate portrays. Karel, for example, plays a narcoleptic playing Charlotte Corday; Henry plays a schizophrenic acting as Marat, and so on. The show’s dizzying, unresolved refractions of power and representation are a source of its exciting strangeness and captivating appeal.
We can be grateful that, although heads are left spinning by “Marat/Sade,” they do not roll.
But there are also more immediate pleasures to be had: the musical numbers, some shouted deliriously, others sung lyrically, contribute to the centrifugal, unhinged energy of the production; the set, spare but evocative, tells us just enough about the asylum and its inmates without crowding the stage; and the blocking of the action, deliberate and coherent, keeps the actors in character at all times. The actors themselves are mostly excellent. Karel’s Corday is a shimmering, spectral presence, shuffling sleepily across the stage, her wiry frame and wavering voice belying her stiff resolve. Tomer Oz gives his self-stimulating inmate a feral energy, and Duperret, the Girondist sympathizer he plays in the inner play, an enthralling vigor. Henry fares less well as Marat, though the part is thankless; spending nearly the entire show in a bathtub, Henry must use only her upper body and her voice to convince us. But her delivery is choppy, preventing us from riding the flume of Marat’s impassioned orations, and her hands signal mental agitation with a repetitive pluck at the top of her head. Locke has terrifying moments as de Sade — such as his voluntary submission to water-boarding — but his performance occasionally softens into something professorial and comic.
Nevertheless, the production only ever disappoints when it makes its lone bid for relevance. A gruesome and manipulative montage of American atrocity is projected at the play’s climax, but this attempt at criticism ends up as mere insult to the audience, who heretofore had been treated roughly but with respect, and to the play, which deserves to be left to its own ambivalent devices. Still, every revolution, whether in the streets of Paris or the theaters of Portsmouth, makes its missteps. At least we can be grateful that, although heads are left spinning by “Marat/Sade,” they do not roll.
“Marat/Sade” runs through April 12 with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. (on April 5) and 3 p.m. (on April 12) at The Players’ Ring, 105 Marcy St., Portsmouth. Tickets are $15; call 603-436-8123.
At top of page: Zach Cranor, Michael Stailey, Kolby Hume, Teddi Kenick-Bailey, Christine Gray, and Tomer Oz as asylum inmates in “Marat/Sade.” (Photo courtesy of The Players’ Ring)