DE SADE BUSTER

The full title of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade is 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. A mouthful--and really a much more proper title than the abbreviated one. This is a long, complicated play, and its long, complicated ideas about revolutionary politics clash in a furious array, leaving the viewer sometimes breathless, sometimes dazed and often intrigued. CityStage Ensemble's savvy production gets Weiss right. But don't expect to feel entertained, touched or enlightened--this eccentric piece of theater isn't about that.

What it is about is difficult to describe. There's no plot in the usual sense. The action takes place in a nineteenth-century insane asylum where the inmates are allowed to put on plays directed by the Marquis de Sade (you know, the guy whose favorite sport was sexual torture). In real life, de Sade actually did present plays at the Charenton asylum that were popular among the cultural elite. Weiss uses that odd historical fact to his advantage to present this dialectic.

In the play within the play, de Sade decides to present a re-enactment of the death of Jean-Paul Marat, one of the architects of the French Revolution. The role of Marat is played by a paranoid inmate; the woman who assassinates him, Charlotte Corday, by a narcoleptic; her lover, Duperret, by a satyr; and all the other roles by patients in various states of twitching, smiling, drooling madness. Only de Sade seems to have his wits about him at all times.

The stage is set to resemble the asylum's bathhouse. Chains on the back wall are used to restrain inmates, and "nurses" with billy clubs help correct patients who get out of line. The actors are all dressed in ghastly rags, and Marat comes out in bloodstained bandages, his skin covered in sores. The only relief he can find for his feverish skin disease is in a cold bath--and he spends most of his time there, writing a "call to the nation" that's intended to rekindle revolutionary ardor among the people.

The philosophical arguments that ensue between Marat and de Sade are complex and often difficult to follow. In one of the play's most compelling moments, de Sade explains that one can't know truth because truth is always changing; man is nothing but a mad animal. For the cynical de Sade, an aristocrat who supported the revolution, the answer is to retreat into his own imagination, which is a pretty perverse one. He's a true solipsist. Marat, whom Weiss envisions as a kind of Marxist before his time, argues that people are so encumbered by ideas from the past and so unwilling to make sacrifices that the only answer to societal problems is violent revolution. The ironies are thick and heavy as the sadist eschews violence and the idealist embraces it.

A fine cast keeps us at an appropriate intellectual distance from the action, a la Bertolt Brecht. Dan Hiester's inventive directing, and especially the fine original score composed and performed by Carlton Bacon, create just the right atmosphere of dread, while the actors swirl and crash into each other, creating a carefully choreographed chaos on stage.

Christopher Leo dresses in gossamer ivory as de Sade and achieves extraordinary clarity for an American playing a European aristocrat--he actually makes us believe in the importance of class differences. He carries himself like translucent porcelain, through which the shadows of de Sade's perversity dance. Terry Burnsed gives yet another intelligent performance as Marat. He moves from a rich, intense naturalism to obnoxious rhetoric when Marat rabble-rouses, making the character alternately sympathetic and irritating.

One of the best performances of the night belongs to Greg Ward as a dangerous madman who in de Sade's production plays a defrocked priest turned revolutionary. Ward's passion is so powerful, his descent into madness so palpable, that he actually manages to insinuate some humanity into this cold tale. Rebekah Buric is the other warm presence on stage. She melts into the half-unconscious narcoleptic patient and then forms again as Charlotte Corday before your eyes, like mercury on the run.

Weiss's work is a strange play, full of contradictions and icy politics. And though it seems dated since its debut in the radical mid-1960s, it still has its moments of relevance, especially when Marat speaks of government's neglect for society's oppressed. The play gives us the opportunity to consider the implications of both Marat's and de Sade's arguments. But it has an agenda, even if that agenda seems obscure. Between the grotesque descriptions of torture and the revolutionary rhetoric lies a cerebral work that somehow manages to wrench the gut without ever touching the heart.

 
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