This is my review of EgoPo Classic Theater‘s production of 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 (aka “Marat/Sade”) by Peter Weiss, as part of the Philadelphia Fringe/Live Arts Festival.
Having already seen one Philly Fringe production (Tribe of Fools’ Dracula at Lantern Theater; see my review here,) I was a little better prepared at what to expect: a professionally-staged production of something in a (albeit HOT) non-traditional venue somewhere off the beaten path in the city. Not that University City isn’t a well-beaten path, I just mean that the venue is not A: on the Avenue of the Arts as South Broad Street is now known, or B: in one of the usual “non-traditional” venues such as abandoned factory buildings in Old City/Northern Liberties. This production of Marat/Sade is performed at The Rotunda, a multi-use venue on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania that was originally built as a Christian Science church in 1911. It is a cavernous round space complete with pipe organ and pews, cracked walls and peeling paint, and rusting chandeliers. As a venue, The Rotunda was cast perfectly as The Asylum in which the play-within-a-play takes place.
Peter Weiss’ play is based on the real-life “reign of terror” of 1793/94 just after the French Revolution, during which up to 40,000 people were executed as “enemies of the revolution” by the radical Jacobins, of which Marat was a leader.
Jean Paul Marat was a writer who was outlawed for his extreme views against just about anyone in power. Continuing to write from hiding, he contracted a skin disease from the sewers of Paris, which necessitated spending most of his time soaking in a tub to relieve the intense pain and itching he experienced.
The Marquis de Sade, whose most famous work, 120 Days of Sodomy, he believed to be lost in the storming of the Bastille but was eventually discovered and published incomplete, was imprisoned for much of his life for his scandalous behavior and writings. While incarcerated at Charenton Asylum, he was allowed to perform plays for the public as part of his education and therapy; during this time it became de rigeur for the upper class to attend one of his performances.
In Weiss’s version of history, de Sade is a god-like figure overseeeing the other inmates of the asylum as they perform his politically-motivated treatise that oftentimes skewers the very class of people sitting in his audience. The play-within-the-play is moderated by the director of the Asylum, who interjects whenever an inmate gets out of hand, or the material becomes a little too seditious for his taste.
At almost the same time as the executions of King Louis and Marie Antoinette, Marat is assassinated by Charlotte Corday, who was motivated out of fear of civil war stirred up by Marat’s rabblerousing in his publications. She was executed four days later by guillotine, and Marat became a martyr for the cause and the reign of terror continued.
Directed by Brenna Geffers, the production makes adequate use of the unusual space of The Rotunda: de Sade observes the production from the choir loft, and the whole cast plays the building’s echoes as a musical instrument. The director has incorporated much music into the production, and the talented cast carries off the singing and playing of instruments (cello, toy piano, accordion, triangle, and bell) admirably. The costumes by Brian Strachan (mainly simple muslin garments and bodices, punctuated with red accessories) add to the style of the piece, but were a bit too clean and new to be believable as worn by asylum inmates.
Jered McLenigan as the Herald, and Megan Hoke as Charlotte Corday were exceptional in their roles, and the other cast members each had their moments as well. The main weakness of the production (aside from the script from 1963, which now seems dated and a little tedious) was that some of the inmates’ business as crazy people was perhaps too crazy, as if the director simply told them, “act crazy”. While providing unanticipated humor, the piece as a whole would’ve had more resonance and believability had the actors been reigned in a bit and given more specific diagnoses to portray. However, with only a bit more suspension of disbelief than I would have preferred, the production turned out to be quite enjoyable.
It would’ve been even more fun to see the same director and cast take on a similar task in the staging of Jean Genet’s The Balcony at the Rotunda. The Balcony has a similar storyline, but instead of an asylum, the action of the play takes place in a brothel, while a rebellion rages outside. In the manufactured reality of the whorehouse, regular citizens (a plumber, a meter-reader, etc.) get their kicks by pretending to be people of power (a judge, a bishop, a general) while they await the arrival of Chief of Police to restore order. One of the prostitutes leaves the brothel to take part in the revolution, and eventually the news is received that the actual figures of power (The Bishop, The General, and The Chief Justice) have all been killed in the revolution. Using the costumes and props from the brothel, the patrons all realize their fantasies when they portray their roles in life to quell the rebelling public.
Hmmm….. maybe next year?