Like journalists and Democrats, many theater directors cower in the face of influence, especially in dark times. Obvious questions should be raised but aren’t, and the obviously relevant 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 (more mercifully known as Marat/Sade) is, thanks largely to the gigantic reputation of director Peter Brook’s 1965 Broadway production, almost always relegated to the "if we ignore it, maybe it will go away" pile.
To be fair, it’s also burdened with a huge cast, a cumbersome script, and dollops of Brecht and Artaud. It’s not easy. But Push Productions and director Michael Kimmel’s new mounting of the play high up on the 4th floor of the small Access Theater Gallery Space in Tribeca is anything but homework. Brook’s production (which can be seen on video or DVD) was gloriously ghastly, but I don’t know if it’s ever been described as fun. Purists will insist that it wasn’t meant to be, that the play (by Peter Weiss) is a work at times assaultive, at times contemplative, but unconcerned with whatever entertainment it might arouse as a side effect. And it’s true that by toning down the hallowed effect, Kimmel’s version loses something of the script’s gravitas; the philosophical exchanges between Marat (Tom Escovar) and Sade (Alan Jestice) don’t ring with the same powerful, pointed righteousness of the original.
But the heart of the work has always been the roundelay of the ensemble, and with this Kimmel has done extraordinary work. Marat/Sade is what the full title says it is: Nearly all the characters are asylum inmates performing the play we are seeing, a play whose main characters are the French journalist and revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, and his murderer, Charlotte Corday (Caitlin Mulhern). The only two other characters are the Marquis de Sade, the play’s director and interlocutor, and Abbe de Coulmier (Robert Chaney), the director of Charenton. (Coulmier did in fact permit Sade to direct plays as an inmate.) With the marvelous contributions of Ben Kato’s lighting and set designs, Kimmel and his young cast have brought subtle control to the chaotic proceedings. They haven’t gone crazy, which is a smart choice; audience-intimidating performance art just ain’t what it was in 1965. There’s a scariness in the careful craft of the production; several times we hear it said that people will believe anything they hear repeated often enough, and the clipped, roundly vocalized delivery of the intonation is as disturbingly resonant as the words, the television "patriots" of today stepping in for the rabid Maratian instigators of the past.
I don’t mean to imply exact parallels. That slash in the shortened title represents what is both dual and eternally messy about the play. It’s a play and a musical. It’s about rich and poor, life and death, in here and out there. That "out there" has become, under the Bush administration, "over there" only makes this daring production seem more appropriate. We can have our revolution and eat it too, feeling a fullness we’re told is nutritional and satisfying. It’s the most comfortable reign of terror ever.
Push Productions, Inc. At Access Theater Gallery Space, 380 Broadway, 4th Floor.
General Admission $15, Students/Seniors $10. 212-712-6610 or www.TheaterMania.com