If there’s one thing about the play shorthandedly called Marat/Sade that’s odder than its actual marathon title, it’s the fact that the setting and characters are based on historic events. Stranger still is the transformation of the play-within-a-play convention to jar the complacency of an audience that expects its entertainment to unfold in traditional ways. Still, the theatrically adventuresome will warm to the news that a revival of German playwright Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade — which in a famous staging by Peter Brook stunned audiences at its 1964 London and 1965 New York premieres — opens at the American Repertory Theatre this month.
For the record, the full title of the work 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. And the historic events? Between 1797 and 1811, the director of the asylum at Charenton, near Paris, prescribed regular theatrical performances as therapy for the inmates in his clinic. The Marquis de Sade, who was imprisoned there for libertine crimes, wrote and directed many of these performances, which became favorite excursions for fashionable Parisians.
János Szász, the 44-year-old Hungarian director who staged a spectacular Mother Courage at ART last season and is now reviving Marat/Sade for the company, states a simple reason for choosing the play. " I am tired of plain, boring theater. The reality is that between the audience and the action there’s an invisible no man’s land. I think Marat/Sade is a wonderful opportunity to bring the audience in so I can reduce the distance. The inmates are aware of the audience. They stop what they are doing at times and stare into the eyes of the audience. I hope the audience will become emotionally involved. " Szász is working closely on the piece with his friend and countryman choreographer Csaba Horváth. " In my opinion, " says the director, " the choreographer is not just a person who makes movement. It’s so important to know how to make a step on the stage. "
Weiss imagined a play written and directed by the Marquis de Sade about the death of the French revolutionary Marat, who was murdered in 1793 by Charlotte Corday, a young woman so disturbed by his ideas that she thought him a danger. The actors of the piece are Sade’s fellow inmates, a combination of political prisoners and mad persons who interpret their roles according to the nature and degrees of their various maladies. Inspired by the politically charged dramas of Bertolt Brecht, Weiss intended the dialectic arguments between Marat and Sade — regarding the importance of social change at whatever cost versus the freedom of the individual — as the core of the material.
In truth, the funhouse distortion whereby actors portray insane inmates, translating their tics and twitches into the roles assigned by Sade, is what made the work a sensation. So it’s fitting that the ART rehearsal period began with a viewing of Fred Wiseman’s 1967 film about life in a Massachusetts mental institution, Titicut Follies, by a cast that includes company regulars Thomas Derrah as the Marquis, Will LeBow as Marat, Karen MacDonald as his nurse, Jeremy Geidt as the asylum keeper, and Stephanie Roth-Haberle as Charlotte, plus John Douglas Thompson, Alvin Epstein, and Paula Plum. LeBow says, " I’ve thought a lot about being mentally ill. János is this actor’s dream because he works in collaboration with the actor and has strong opinions about what he wants on stage — and there’s his great heart. " The cast also includes a quartet of singers and a musical ensemble to perform Richard Peaslee’s score.
Szász is a film director as well, and mostly he makes feature films (including an award-winning Woyzeck). But most recently he made a documentary about the fate of Hungarian Jewish children during the Holocaust for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project. " The theater for me is a sandbox where one can really experiment as much with the actors as individuals as with images. I began my theater career in very small chamber spaces. The challenge in a large theater space is to maintain the intimacy but at the same time give it a larger scope, like a film where you see the large image and then zoom in.
" Marat/Sade is not a finished piece of work. It’s a dress rehearsal in the asylum. We’re not dealing with actors; we’re dealing with inmates. I’m not directing the show; the Marquis de Sade is in charge. We can forget all the things that have stuck to us — everything we have learned about theater and culture. You cannot direct this like Uncle Vanya. "
Marat/Sade is presented by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center in repertory February 15 through March 17. Tickets are $26 to $61, with discounts for seniors and students. Call (617) 547-8300.