By John Quinn
The Hilberry Theatre closes its 50th season with an extraordinary challenge. “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,” better known, I am grateful, simply as “Marat/Sade,” is still avante garde even at age 50. It’s more pageant than play: cruel, unrelenting and hard to like. It is also, thanks to its director, guest-artist Matthew Earnest, a compelling, visceral work, satisfying for its sheer theatricality. Earnest has gotten everything right by simply honoring the playwright’s intent.
That playwright was Peter Weiss, born a Czech but a naturalized Swede. His work was heavily influenced by German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, the French director who espoused the Theatre of Cruelty – as explored in “Marat/Sade,” meaning a violent determination to shatter false reality. Weiss has created a timeless work; he crafts a framework of societal dysfunction during the Napoleonic Empire, using techniques developed amidst the dysfunction of the Weimar Republic. His purpose was to explore the dysfunction of the Cold War, but his theme was eerily echoed this week in the streets of Boston. In a nut shell, “Marat/Sade” asks, “What needs to be altered in order to promote change? Is it society, or is it the individual?”
Weiss delved into history and chose as his debaters Jean-Paul Marat, firebrand journalist of the French Revolution, and the Marquis de Sade, whose sexual predilections gave us the term, “sadism.” While the characters were contemporaries, they had no historical conversation. “Marat/Sade” by intention is an unsettling work, and it all begins with the structure. The setting is Charenton Asylum; the date is July 13, 1808. Dr Coulmier (Joshua Blake Rippy), the “progressive” head of the institution, uses theater as therapy for his patients. He has encouraged his most notorious charge, the Marquis de Sade, to write and direct an account of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat on the 15th anniversary of the event. He’s looking for a celebration of how successful the new regime is compared to the old. For his patients, and especially Sade, the difference is summed, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” Even the word “freedom” sets off the insane. Weiss has already set us up for layers of unreality. “Marat/Sade” is a play within a play in which the interior playwright may interact with his creations.
Historically, Marat was pushing for further bloodshed as the Revolution devolved to murderous infighting among factions. Charlotte Corday, representing a less violent faction, stabbed him to death in his bath in an effort to head off a civil war. The effort was in vain, and the Reign of Terror commenced.
We can dispense with the historical narrative, though; it’s not terribly relevant. Weiss put it, “Our play’s chief aim has been to take to bits great propositions and their opposites, see how they work, and let them fight it out.” The antagonists are Marat (Edmund Alyn Jones)and Sade (Joe Plambeck), polar opposites, representing anarchy and authoritarianism. Is there a winner? This is Brechtian theater; the resolution is left to each audience member.
This is edgy stuff. Ernest has toned down the violence and sex, but “Marat/Sade” still resonates on a primitive level. But as an educational experience for both artists and audience, it is unparalleled. Earnest’s notable achievement is his success in the Brechtian concept of “alienation.” Brecht, an ideologue to the bone, believed art was merely an educational tool. Thus “alienation” creates situations that interrupt the audiences’ imagination so that they can’t forget that it’s “only make-believe.”
The asylum residents are in mime makeup. Our narrator, “The Herald,” is the formidable Topher Payne, cross dressing in heels, a white slip, and red opera gloves. Overall, his remarkable performance is reminiscent of the Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret.” Evoking that account of the failing Weimar Republic would warm the cockles of Becht’s Marxist heart.
Two especially satisfying performances stand out; Vanessa Sawson as a narcoleptic playing Charlotte Corday, paired with Brandon Grantz as a grabby satyromaniac playing Duperret, one of her compatriots. Their downstage-center dialogues practically define alienation as the artists portray multiple layers of fantasy, destroying them as the go.
Ultimately, though, Edmund Alyn Jones and Joe Plambeck own this show. Jones is able to limn both Marat and the paranoid patient that plays him without leaving a bathtub – a tub on wheels, no less. He holds his own against Plambeck’s imposing stage presence and the Marquis’s more appealing philosophy, a sort of libertine libertarianism. Plambeck plays one of the most memorable scenes; Sade dispenses political musings while being lashed (in mime, faint of hearts) at his own request.
“Marat/Sade” is not a production for the easily offended. Nor is it likely to entertain patrons with rigid prejudices. It instead demands an intellectual, internal discussion in each member of a discerning audience. Once again our society is caught in a riptide of clashing forces: It’s the wise citizen who will be ready.
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through May 11. 2 hours, 25 minutes. $12-30. 313-577-2972. http://www.Hilberry.com