Asking an actor to play crazy is like begging Celine Dion to go for that top note—it’s going to happen anyway, so why make things worse by encouraging it?
Nevertheless, troupes like Balagan Theatre continue to stage Marat/Sade. Peter Weiss’ 1964 play requires actors to portray inmates of the Charenton asylum in 1808 France. Those inmates are, in turn, asked to be actors (under the watchful eye of their hospital director) in a performance created by notorious fellow inmate the Marquis de Sade. The Marquis has a few ideas to share about the country’s recent bloody revolution and the disillusionment that followed (as exemplified by the 1793 assassination of Reign of Terror radical Jean-Paul Marat, stabbed in his bathtub by a disgusted rebel named Charlotte Corday).
This means that from the moment you enter Balagan’s basement space, you are confronted by inmates babbling incoherently, laughing maniacally, offering sexual favors and asking you to buy them a drink—you know, all the things actors do in real life when they’re not playing inmates. They also sing songs, sometimes speak in rhyme, and a few of them (gulp) wear clown makeup.
It’s not as painful as it could be. But it’s not what it purports to be.
“These days,” Richard Clairmont writes in his director’s notes, “another revolution is upon us. And while no heads will roll during the first hundred days, I have found in this play a cautionary tale. Even idealism needs scrutiny, or it descends into righteousness and hubris.” Great, but Clairmont hasn’t quite brought out the nuances to get you past the distraction of watching a company go cuckoo. How much do these inmates feel the truth of what they’re saying? When does the play-within-the-play gain ground on the “real” play? Why do French inmates have Cockney accents?
Under more astute direction, Lyam White’s Marquis could probably upset you—there are few things more discomfiting than a maniac with a handle on the truth. White struts with a mischievous glimmer in his eye, and even suggests some strange sadness, but he’s not the preening Hannibal Lecter that de Sade probably was. And there’s no build to the push-pull dynamics between him and Wright’s blustering asylum head, making the show’s climax seem a paean to S&M and not a metaphor for societal retribution.
What you’re left with is set designer Ed Cook’s crafty chain-link cage, filled with a bunch of committed (sorry) actors given nowhere to go.