Friday, July 18, 2008

Marat/Sade: A Forum Rave

I went to the opening night of Forum Theatre'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 -- better known as Marat/Sade -- in DC tonight.

Bottom line: This production of Peter Weiss' play is miraculous.

Let's start with the handicap: Marat/Sade is a quintessentially 1960s play. Playwright Peter Weiss hijacked the continuing immediacy of the French Revolution in post-1945 politics (with more than a nod to Georg Buchner's 1835 play Danton's Death). Just check out the movie based on the Royal Shakespeare Company's staggeringly brilliant 1967 production of the play -- all atom bombs and sexual revolution.

But director Michael Dove re-imagines this play so wonderfully in the Forum production, however, that you will (at least for the moment) forget the RSC version. Where RSC director Peter Brook went for anarchic sex and apocalypse, Dove angles for something more tangible and contemporary: madness, sensuality and war.

In 2008, the easy route for a director of Marat/Sade would be to angle for the stagecraft and song of the play: Armageddon as cabaret. And the actors who carry the music of this production -- Jesse Terrill (who wrote dazzling new music for this staging), Barbara Papendorp, Lisa Lias, Colin Smith, Michael Grew, Ashley Ivey, Colin Smith and Emre Izat -- skilfully inhabit the songs and placards that Weiss writes into the play.

For me, however, the center of the play is the fierce dialectic between Marat (Danny Gavigan) and the Marquis de Sade (Jonathon Church). Dove's version foregrounds this bitter conflict, and uses it as the engine of the play, enlisting the animating energy embodied in the pivotal roles of Charlotte Corday (Katy Carcuff), Simonne Evrard (Helen Parfumi) and the rabble-rousing priest Jacques Roux (Eric Messner) to spur it along. (Corday's assassination of Marat is downright sexy.)

The danger of doing Marat/Sade in 2008 is indulging in perverse nostalgia -- leaning on Bobby Kennedy and mutual assured destruction and a Europe where revolution is taking the barricades against the bourgeoisie. Forum's Marat/Sade scrolls forward to an America where war and religion and history are contested categories. The questions that this Marat/Sade poses are worth pondering. The Forum production pushes forward in all directions -- the futility of revolution is (almost) fun; assassination is as sexual as it is brutal, and politics is a carousel of sensual brutality.

Tickets -- and they are highly recommended -- are here.

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