URI’s Marat/Sade finds pleasure in pain

Musical madness
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  October 18, 2011

A TENDER MOMENT Burnap and Foster.

To compare a crazed society to a madhouse is a trite observation. But it became an astute metaphor and powerful theatrical experience when playwright Peter Weiss created Marat/Sade, as URI Theatre is robustly demonstrating (through October 23).

The full title of the play is 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, which is even more confusing in the German of its original 1963 production. The following year, an English musical version by Peter Brook in London became popular, with music by Richard Peaslee and lyrics by the play's translator, Adrian Mitchell.

What allows productions to be so dynamic is that the story is a play within a play. The Marquis de Sade, from whom we get the term sadist, actually was allowed to put on plays at the insane asylum in which he was confined. In this imagining (directed by Alan F. Hawkridge), the kindly but strict director of the asylum, Coulmier (Joshua Andrews), keeps interrupting the show when he notices that de Sade failed to make agreed-upon deletions. The offending dialogue is usually political in nature or anti-Church, and Coulmier objects to information such as that the bureaucrat in charge of the military's corn supply sold it on the open market, and it now feeds their enemies.

It is 1808, and the inmates' story goes back to revolutionary days, culminating in 1793, four years after the French Revolution began, when Jean-Paul Marat, a prime instigator of the revolution through his writings, was assassinated in his bath by the vengeful peasant woman Charlotte Corday (Kira Hawkridge). Knife in hand, she approaches him in his bath three times, but there is no suspense as to what will happen, since onlookers know this recent history.

Marat (Andrew Burnap) is suffering from a skin disease, Simonne Evrard (Emily Foster) is nursing him, wrapping and re-wrapping a cooling cloth around his head. When they are alone, Burnap presents the revolutionary leader as vulnerable, almost meek, stiffening only during his exchanges with de Sade (Miles Boucher). For the most part Boucher maintains a bemused arrogance appropriate for the defeated, limping de Sade, who has been locked up for five years. But Boucher takes the opportunity to soften and humanize him somewhat when de Sade confides that he couldn't bring himself to send men to their death when he was on a tribunal.

Marat/Sade is the perfect way to exhibit techniques of Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, and the related alienation effect of Bertolt Brecht. De Sade himself here feels that "even the cruelest death drowns in the total indifference of nature." Brecht was concerned that we not be swept up in the emotions of a story, lest that dilute our thinking about it; constant interruptions with songs takes care of that here.

A few songs remain familiar to some of us from the 1967 film adaptation by Peter Brook. Declared by de Sade and repeated by the ensemble, "What's the use of revolution without general copulation?" is a line designed to stick, though the accompanying orgy in the URI production was relatively demure during the "Copulation Round" song that it instigated. Perhaps the most touching lyrics from the dozen songs has the ensemble plaintively implore: "Marat, we're poor/and the poor stay poor/Marat, don't make us wait anymore/We want our rights and we don't care how/We want our revolution — now!"

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