Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade is by far the most visually and conceptually ambitious production that 5C theater has mounted in the Allen Theater black box. Audiences should be prepared for absolute chaos—screaming dirty actors, flickering spotlights, and an electric air of sexual tension. Also watch out for the guy who spits, a lesson which a couple of unfortunate students in the first row learned firsthand.
Sometimes historical material can feel dated (and by dated, I mean boring). In this production, this is decidedly not the case. Marat/Sade, written in the 1960’s and set in the late 18th century, unfolds in flowery and hyperbolic prose and recounts the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a key agitator in the French Revolution. It takes place in a mental asylum, assuming the format of a play-within-a-play starring the deranged inmates in the roles of Marat, young revolutionaries, jilted maidens, and God knows what else. While the play progresses, harried nurses wrangle the patients/actors and the director of the asylum watches, along with his family and the play’s constantly intervening director, the Marquis de Sade.
Director Art Horowitz has attempted to update this highly complex production with live punk music, visual projections into the set, and a script peppered with contemporary Rocky Horror-esque commentary from ever-present musicians. I was nervous about my ability to enjoy such an avant-garde play, but to Horowitz’s credit, most of it felt like some strange, immersive, loud underground gig. I was especially impressed by the construction of the set, which featured a long staircase opening from the second floor, forcing the audience to enter as part of the spectacle.
This is not to say that this unusual, dynamic approach was without its problems. Although the students playing the inmates were admirably adept at maintaining bizarre bodily and verbal tics, the regular musical numbers sometimes derailed the abject vibe. It was disconcerting to watch a dirty paranoid-schizophrenic twitch on the floor, then jump up to smoothly sing a mournful ballad (clapping their hands perfectly in time). The disturbing, often-evolving images projected on the large set pieces were merely distracting, rather than an enhancement to the performance—the swirling frenzy of the place might have packed a bigger punch had those visuals been brighter or more numerous during song breaks. I would have also been happier had the side comments been silenced—hearing “That’s what she said” after another character’s suggestive line really jarred me away from the scary, sexy performance.
What brought my focus back to Marat/Sade’s particular narrative genius was the talented and diverse cast. The play tackles a plethora of deep questions regarding the nature of revolution, of joy and pain and love, and the actors did a fabulous job dealing with the nuances of the material. Trevor Felch CMC ’11 shined as the slimy-yet-eloquent de Sade, winding his way around stage with a confident air of sensuality. In particular, I was transfixed by a scene in which he requests a whipping from the inmates; Felch brings a rawness and filthy desire to his character without losing his aristocratic bearing. The roles of Marat and Charlotte Corday were played with passion and precision by Marshall Anderson PZ ’12 and Rebecca Hardesty PZ ’11 respectively; both managed to portray individuals only loosely tethered to reality while still struggling to embody the roles assigned them within de Sade’s play. Newcomer Solomzi Henry Moleketi PZ ’14 provided a mischievous energy as the play’s narrator, injecting humor with excellent timing while maintaining an undercurrent of suprising ferocity.
This is not your run-of-the-mill theater production; no sad widows or elegant string quartets here. So do yourself a favor and take a break from “high culture.” Let yourself go as a spectator of Marat/Sade, and experience of depths of darkness and fury that might not have seemed possible in a theater performance. This departure from the norm merits praise for Horowitz, his production designers, and the actors, who show remarkable bravery and a wellspring of untapped insanity. This is the cure for the common show. Marat/Sade will be playing at the Allen Theater in the Seaver Theater Complex at Pomona from Nov. 19 to 21. Tickets are available at the box office, or call 909-604-4375 for more information.