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Marat / Sade

The Classical Theatre of Harlem does a mostly commendable job with Peter Weiss' notorious and notoriously difficult drama. logo
Nathan Hinton, Dana Watkins, and Daniel Talbott
in Marat / Sade
(© Michael Messer)
The hero of The Classical Theatre of Harlem's revival of Peter Weiss' Marat / Sade is set designer Troy Hourie, who's created a large chain-link cage that not only thrusts squarely into the audience but wraps ominously behind some of the crowd. The effect is to make spectators wonder whether the 30-plus actors peering through the noisy fence are the asylum inmates or whether the folks huddled in the folding-chairs are the insane ones.

Weiss, who initially wowed the theater world with this highly theatrical piece in 1963, wants to drive home his contention that hope for global equilibrium is futile in a world ready to go mad at a moment's notice. His argument is open to some debate, but there's no denying he illustrates it explosively or that director Christopher McElroen's production does a generally commendable job of serving the author's incendiary purposes. At the play's core is a reasoned discussion of the aims and misfires of revolution, the search for a precise definition of genuine lunacy, and the question of what constitutes integrated sexual behavior.

The rambunctious work has some basis in the fact that the controversial Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis de Sade, was immured in the historic Charenton Asylum during and after the French Revolution. It's Weiss' fancy that in 1808, Sade (T. Ryder Smith) prepared an entertainment for asylum supervisor Coulmier (Ron Simons), his wife (Tyshawn Major), and their daughter (Joi Sears) that depicted the 1793 murder of Revolution pamphleteer Jean-Paul Marat (Nathan Hinton) by Charlotte Corday (Dana Watkins).

Intermingling the growing notion of democratic freedom with the sexual liberation he promoted, a rational-seeming Sade seizes on the opportunity to dispute Coulmier's conciliatory politics. While allowing his masque to unfold, he runs the risk of bringing the warden's wrath on him. He even ventures so far as to indulge in a philosophical diatribe about his beliefs that includes his being flagellated -- more a masochistic than sadistic act -- and his smearing himself with what looks convincing like human feces.

Coulmier never becomes more than momentarily threatening, however, and the play-within-the-play proceeds to and through the stabbing sequence carried out by a narcoleptic inmate handed a knife. (Would any asylum head allow an actual knife to be used, even with attendants close by?) Sade's script is played out while other inmates, some of them with speeches to deliver, are alternately docile and belligerent. Often, the ensemble members raise their voices on Richard Peaslee's songs, the best-known including the phrase "Marat, we're poor, and the poor stay poor." (Kelvyn Bell is the musical director and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj is the choreographer and the likely instigator of the stylized fellatio and anal intercourse performed from time to time.)

Marat/Sade is a handful for any company to tackle. A director is charged with conveying Weiss' intellectual ideas in an atmosphere of supposed chaos, but an occasional slip and the chaos shifts rapidly from controlled and lucid to uncontrolled and confusing. Assuming this daunting assignment, McElroen sees that the central actions come across for the most part. Every once in a while, though, this French Bedlam does devolve into bedlam. The fence rattling is excessively cacophonous, as are the actors doing the rattling.

The focal figures -- especially Smith's gaunt and sinister Marquis, Watkins' timid inmate's impersonation of Corday, and Hinton's exhortatory Marat -- are authoritative. But too many in the company fall into the trap that snares so many actors playing the insane; they get caught up distractingly in their own take on navel-gazing.

Perhaps, though, certain productions should be judged like Olympic diving competitions, by degree of difficulty. According to that measure, let's say that on a scale of 10, this Marat/Sade earns a 7.25.

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