Prisoners and Players

The assault on the audience came almost immediately upon entrance to the theater. As we squeezed our way into the tightly packed seats, large men, several of them naked, glared at us while they finished getting dressed under the baleful gaze of armed guards. There was no way to avoid making eye contact with the prisoners, some of whom furtively poked their fingers through the chain-link structure separating them from the audience, others of whom stared angrily outward. These looks, desperate or threatening, continued throughout the performance, even while "great men" debated how best to serve "the people." The people themselves stared out at the audience, daring us to really see them.

Peter Weiss's dauntingly titled 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, published in 1963, is one of the genuine triumphs of 20th-century drama. Peter Brook's seminal 1964 production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which came to New York and won several Tonys in 1966, is widely considered a triumph as well, and has become so closely associated with the play that the two seem almost inextricable.

Given the large cast, the demanding text, and the shadow of an unforgettable production, it shouldn't be surprising that the play is rarely produced professionally, despite its importance. Still, it is something of a shock to read that Marat/Sade has not received a major production in New York in 40 years. Theatergoers should therefore not miss the opportunity to see Classical Theater of Harlem's audacious new staging, playing now through March 11.

This new production, directed by CTH co-founder Christopher McElroen, isn't perfect, but it is both riveting and challenging. Most impressive, it is relentlessly and gloriously uncomfortable to watch, reminding us that theater is capable of a great deal more than soothingly diverting entertainment.

Inspired by a provocative piece of history, the play's plot is evident in its title. The infamous Marquis de Sade spent the final years of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane. As a part of the progressive treatment offered there, he was sometimes allowed to write and produce plays, with the other inmates as actors. While the plays Sade actually wrote while in captivity were rather apolitical and not particularly transgressive by the period's standards, Weiss imagines that Sade wrote a play about the assassination of prominent French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. As the play-within-the-play moves inexorably toward Marat's stabbing by Charlotte Corday, it also allows time for Sade to debate his fictionalized Marat about a variety of philosophical and political issues.

The play's structure and content are complex enough to defy easy summary, and McElroen's production stumbles when he attempts to distract the audience from this complexity. While Sade and Marat toss barbed abstractions across the stage, McElroen creates easy laughs with the spectacle of the inmates struggling to behave themselves. The moments are charming and diverting, but they take away from the seriousness of the debate under way. To be fair, Marat and, especially, Sade are given more and more focus as the play progresses. Layers of irony and absurdity are stripped away until Weiss's severely wounded idealism is rendered in all its cynicism and vitriol.

For the most part, the actors handle themselves well. Certainly T. Rider Smith, as Sade, gives a compelling and layered performance, alternately controlled and raw. Dana Watkins deftly delivers a performance within a performance—as a narcoleptic inmate playing the murderous Corday—with a level of craft that ultimately manages to overshadow his considerable physical beauty. More impressive than the standout performances from some of the leads, however, is the commitment and discipline displayed by most of the ensemble. The images that lingered longest in my memory were not of Sade's self-mutilation or Jacques Roux's (Andrew Guilart) histrionics but of the haunted and haunting stares of the ensemble.

The press notes for Marat/Sade do not mention the play's political underpinnings, but even in a production that shies away from Weiss's more cerebral tendencies, the prisoners' despair shimmers with contemporary resonance. An inmate cries, "We talk about freedom, but who is this freedom for?" before being struck down unceremoniously by abusive guards.

Propagandistic optimism about Napoleon's disastrous final war and the triumphant march of progress is sprinkled throughout the play. Alarmingly, it becomes increasingly indistinguishable from presidential press conferences. As the music swells and the prisoners revolt, 1803, 1966, and 2007 converge, and spectators are left to wonder whether they are to blame and whether there's anything they can do to stop history's cyclical march.

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