'Marat/Sade,' From Time Out of Mind

Jonathon Church as the Marquis de Sade in Forum's "Marat/Sade."
Jonathon Church as the Marquis de Sade in Forum's "Marat/Sade." (Melissa Blackall Photography/forum Theatre)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008

From the dusty shelves of venerable keepsakes, Forum Theatre has retrieved "Marat/Sade." Peter Weiss's play -- the full, breath-defying title is "The Assassination and Persecution of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade" -- was a sensation in the mid-1960s, when its proletarian sensibility and explosively theatrical style seemed perfectly calibrated for a decade of tumult.

The little company faithfully revives the piece, in all its play-within-a-play cleverness: The asylum dwellers are assigned roles by the notorious de Sade (Jonathon Church) to reenact the stabbing of the French revolutionary Marat (Danny Gavigan) by the politically motivated Charlotte Corday (Katy Carkuff). The conceit is that the inmate-actors' afflictions become one with their portrayals: The enemy-sensing Marat, for example, is a paranoiac, and the single-minded Corday suffers from sleeping sickness.

But while Forum's performers have a grand time acting like lunatics in the H Street Playhouse, director Michael Dove's production reveals something more sobering: that the play is frozen in time, that what once felt unleashed and subversive about it now seems rather contrived and message-laden.

As an evening out, in other words, "Marat/Sade" is only so-so.

Forum of late has been staking out plays of expansive scale, which is providing exposure for a whole community of young actors. In the spring, it presented a lively version of Stephen Adly Guirgis's fanciful "Last Days of Judas Iscariot," notable for the contributions of such promising actors as Jason McCool and Veronica del Cerro. "Marat/Sade" is another large-canvas undertaking and again, the troupe asserts its value as a showcase for strong, emerging talent.

Dove has recruited Jesse Terrill as an ensemble member, but Terrill's more significant part here is as composer: He has capably reset the songs to his own compositions. (Sample challenging lyric: "What's the point of a revolution without general copulation?") Among the actors, Eric Messner is commendably commanding as the radical priest Jacques Roux, ranting and straitjacketed. Parker Dixon makes perversion his own as a sexual predator cast as Corday's lover. And though she is meant to appear unconscious for a lot of the play, Carkuff brings a winning touch of bewildered fragility to the part of Corday.

As demonstrated in other works of the '60s, like Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,'' the insane as victims of oppression had some romantic currency. In "Marat/Sade," de Sade's play is being presented at the asylum at the behest of its paternalistic chief executive, Coulmier (Steve Beall), who wants to show the public how an artistic exercise can be therapeutic. The decadent de Sade has other lessons in mind in reenacting the assassination of Marat, having to do both with the hypocrisies of post-revolutionary France -- read: our own time -- and his own martyr complex.

The audience is positioned (along with members of Coulmier's party) on three sides of the stage, watching as Gavigan's Marat -- immersed in a tub to soothe a debilitating skin condition -- obsessively scribbles out political manifestos. Gavigan does not sufficiently convey the inmate's paranoia, so there's a disconnect in the performance. His Marat seems far too robust. Church's de Sade, meanwhile, comes across as rather detached. We're not made to wholly see it from his point of view, to understand what's in this elaborate spectacle for him.

Yvette M. Ryan does an effective job with the ragtag costumes for the asylum players, and the violin and piano accompaniment by Terrill and Emre Izat adds needed verve to a show that the years and changing theater tastes appear to have tamed.

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, by Peter Weiss. Translation by Geoffrey Skelton. Directed by Michael Dove. Set, Matt Soule; lighting, Andrew Griffin; movement, Joel Reuben Ganz; fight choreography, Cliff Williams III. With Michael Grew, Ashley Ivey, Joe Brack, Helen Pafumi, Barbara Papendorp, Andrew Vergara, Lisa Lias. About two hours. Through Aug. 10 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 800-494-TIXS or visit

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