The French Revolutionary setting of Marat/Sade — playing at the Hilberry Theatre through May 11 — may be unfamiliar. Even the Holocaust and the Cold War, events that prompted German-born Peter Weiss to write the play, have become distant memories. Yet the play’s central question — is change possible, and, if so, how and at what cost? — recall historical moments with which we do and do not like to identify: the American and Communist revolutions; the movements for civil, women’s and LGBT rights; acts of terrorism; the Arab Spring; and Guantanamo hunger strikes. Returning guest director Matthew Earnest explores the resonances of this deeply haunting and disturbingly funny play in an impressive celebration of the 50th anniversaries of both Weiss’s Marat/Sade and the Hilberry.
True to its full title, Marat/Sade is actually a play within a play: 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 frame play takes place in 1808 in the insane asylum-prison Charenton. Here, the Marquis de Sade, author of 120 Days of Sodom and sadism’s namesake, is doing time for sexual deviance. With the support of asylum director Coulmier, who desires to show off his progressive treatment methods, Sade directs a play acted by patients. This inner play tells of Marat’s death in 1793. Appalled by the excesses of the revolution (think: guillotine), political moderate Charlotte Corday murders the radical revolutionary in the bathtub where he seeks relief from severe eczema.
There are no clear boundaries between inner and exterior play, both of which take place in a setting inspired by Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting, The Death of Marat. Sade walks into his play to debate Marat, countering the revolutionary’s call for violence in the service of the people with the cynic’s argument that, trapped in our own self-serving individuality, we have no claim to pass judgment on others.
Sade then walks out of the play to face Coulmier, who is alarmed when his patients begin to identify with their roles as the disgruntled poor.
Peter Weiss’ evocative German, and the elegant English translation used here, implies that the play has yet another frame: the present in which it is performed. To this end, cast members wear costumes from the 18th century to the present, while the patients’ whiteface and red cheeks and lips suggest that the common man (and woman) always have been, and will be, puppets of the powerful.
Integrated into the Brecht-and-Weill-inspired music of the original English production, more familiar genres connect the innovative score to our time. The disturbing dance number to La Rage, by Argentinian-French rapper Keny Arkana, and the over-the-top Broadway rendition of “Poor Old Marat,” deserve special attention.
Marat/Sade demands versatile acting. Edmund Alyn Jones shines in his blurred roles as Marat and the paranoid asylum patient playing him. Moved across the stage in a bathtub on wheels, he glides effortlessly between the personas of unflinching, self-styled and very sexy revolutionary on the one hand, and insecure, frightened patient — and revolutionary — on the other. Overplaying the fop and somewhat losing the intellectual side of Sade in pathos, Joe Plambeck has more difficulty maintaining the play’s delicate balance between angry frustration and sardonic humor but still offers a solid performance. Vanessa Sawson gives the motivations of Corday and the depression of the patient who plays her real credibility. In drag with a shaved head, Topher Payne rises to the challenge of the chameleon-like role of the narrator (Herald). The supporting cast of actor-musicians is excellent.
Peter Weiss’ German text concludes with an epilogue in which Sade confesses he has found no answers to the question motivating his play. Citing Marat’s assertion that “I am right and I will say it again,” leftists like to insist that the play ultimately sides with Marat. Peter Brook’s 1967 film adaptation of his Tony Award-winning production of the play omits the epilogue (as does Earnest’s production). Yet the riot concluding Brook’s film suggests the attraction of Marat’s unyielding position to 1960s radicals and intellectuals alike.
In contrast, Earnest’s 21st century rendering gives the final word to Coulmier. The asylum director wears a modern suit and creepy smile while having his staff — a menacing male nurse and two hulking nuns played by men — brutally silence patients who get out of line. Coulmier is the slick technocrat who, in the play’s closing monologue, reassures his 2013 audience that we are now much more modern and civilized than in the past.
By reminding us that history has repeated itself again and again, Marat/Sade leaves its audience wondering whether long-term societal change is possible. Echoing our questions is the worn luggage stacked under the Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s tilted stage and around her elegantly sparse set.
Evocative of suitcases taken away from inmates and then left piled up in both German concentration camps and early 20th century U.S. psychiatric institutions, they also serve as a powerful metaphor for Marat’s explanation of why the process of change is so long and painful: “We are so clogged with ideas from the past we can’t find a way out. We invented the revolution, but we don’t know what to do with it. We all want to keep something from the past.”
Jason Collins reminds us that change does happen, but Marat/Sade encourages us to think long and hard about, among many other things, the 44 long years between the Stonewall riots and Collins’ coming-out in Sports Illustrated.
Marat/Sade is playing through May 11, at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-577-2972; hilberry.com
Lisabeth Hock is a freelance writer and theater critic who is also an associate professor of German at Wayne State University in Detroit.