If you are an American University student and wander into Katzen Arts Center this weekend, you may hear wails of agony. Do not be alarmed. The Department of Performing Arts presents 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, mercifully shortened to Marat/Sade. The actors scream, writhe, sing and shout their way through this perplexing play. My advice: Cover your ears. It’s about to get creepy.
As the full title says, Marat/Sade is a play-within-a-play. Patients perform a show in the Charenton asylum (read: prison) for the insane and political dissidents. They reenact the aftermath of the French Revolution—specifically, the murder of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat (Christopher Carillo). Unsatisfied with Jacobin rule, Charlotte Corday (Roxy Reynolds) assassinated Marat, a Jacobin politician.
Spheres of resistance circle each other, creating tension in this 1808 world. Revolution means resistance, and the patients resist the repressive regimes of both Emperor Napoleon and asylum director Coulmier (Ivy Rice).
There were several times where it was difficult to understand what was going on, where I understood the passions, but not the plot, and at times, I felt driven to insanity—not unlike the characters. To “get it,” I researched Marat/Sade, finding a rich history. I wish some of this context had been included in the program.
Peter Weiss wrote Marat/Sade in 1963. Performances of the German play started in West Berlin. A year later, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in London produced an English version of the show, with translation by Geoffrey Skelton and verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell. RSC director Peter Brook was inspired by French actor Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty,” which presents pain onstage without using words. Marat/Sade has been a staple of critics and colleges since its premiere.
The play draws heavily on historical events. French politician Marquis de Sade (a riveting Paul Lysek, Jr.) lived in Charenton under Coulmier and directed plays performed by his fellow patients. Marat and Sade never really met, but the characters antagonize each other. In this version, Sade invokes the indulgent bourgeois and Marat the suffering Marxist.
Still, moments of “Marat/Sade” strike the intended chords. For instance, actors use a simple washboard and bucket to represent guillotine executions. It’s implied rather than literal gore. We imagine the horrors, more terrifying in our minds than they could be onstage.
As much as the show disturbs and frustrates, it also strives for relevance. Director Randy Baker references modern revolutions — Egypt 2011 and Syria 2013 — each as violent as the French Revolution. Actors even perform a bizarre yet fitting cup song (a style the film Pitch Perfect made popular).
Jen Rankin’s set immerses us. Appropriately, we are trapped inside the asylum. A French flag hangs in a corner. Large swaths of torn paper cover the walls, with handwritten, nonsensical sentences.
Boosting this illusion, freshman Jana Bernand slinks between the crowd. She forces you to notice her. The future of this drama department looks stunning in Bernard’s capable hands. She plays the Herald, our insane narrator. Bernard mixes folksy storytelling with creepy decisions: breathing down the necks of audience members, laughing knowingly.
Diana Cummiskey (Kokol), Jordan Halsey (Polpoch), Kendall Helblig (Cucurucu) and Hilary Morrow (Rossignol) delight as a quartet of singers. They lighten the mood, a Greek chorus for the poor and restless masses.
Henry Pines (Duperret) tackles the show’s most nauseating role, historically a political activist but here a sexually abusive patient. Last semester, Pines played Nazi Ernst Ludwig in Cabaret. His Duperret proves harder to watch—though no less disturbing—than Ludwig.
If you choose to dive into this twisting and twisted show, stick around till the end. Its surprising, clever and, like the show, a bit mad.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
Marat/Sade plays through this Sunday, November 17, 2013 at American University’s Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen Arts Center – 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202)-885-2787, or purchase them online.