BOTTOM LINE: A sharply directed, delightfully creepy piece that allows you to have fun and feel intellectual at the same time.
Generally speaking, I can find something to enjoy in most theater pieces, but on occasion, when I find myself watching a highbrow European intellectualist theater piece after a long day at work, I begin to feel my attention span darting off in a million directions and I start counting down the minutes in my head. I was a little concerned this would be the case with The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of Charenton Under the Direction of The Marquis De Sade (henceforth known as Marat/Sade, the almost universally accepted abbreviation). I need not have been concerned. The Queens Players production of Marat/Sade is European intellectualist theater for those with a short attention span. It is so skillfully directed and produced, with such minute attention to detail, there is no end to the amount of discoveries an audience member can make just by observing the world for ninety minutes.
Marat/Sade, written by Peter Weiss in 1964, is a play within a play in which inmates of the asylum of Charenton present a play for visitors about post-war dissatisfaction with the French Revolution. Weiss mixes actual historical figures and places with a giant cast of fictional inmates. Charenton was an actual hospital devoted to using the arts in rehabilitation, and the Marquis de Sade spent part of his life in it. While the play itself is captivating, what truly makes this piece is Kelly Johnston's masterful direction and the complete commitment of his cast of twenty four actors.
The premise of the evening is that the audience members are visitors to the asylum. The show begins on the loading dock outside of the theater, as the audience wrangler/doctor's assistant, played by Sean MacBride Murray, greets each audience member personally and fields questions in character. I heard him explain to another audience member that he would speak to the doctor about holding the show for a few minutes as the audience member's friend was running late, but that he wasn't sure it was going to be plausible as "the patients are on a very strict schedule, routine is part of their therapy." After briefing, the small audience (only twenty tickets are available each night) is ushered into the theater, which is already filled with twenty actors who very convincingly play various degrees of crazy. Never before have I seen a fourth wall so completely crushed into the ground. From the moment I walked into the theater and took my seat, I felt as if I were observing life around me, instead of watching a play, which is about the highest compliment I think one can pay theater.
The reason this production works so well is because Johnston uses every opportunity possible to make the world of his play vital, unique, and real. The actors never leave the stage, which means they spend a lot of time sitting and observing, or sitting and introverting, or sitting and heckling. In a fine presentation of organized chaos each inmate of the asylum has a very specific bend on their insanity: one patient is unable to stay awake, another is sexually obsessed, another seems unable to leave the safety of his corner, yet another counts quietly whenever he is left alone for a moment. The result of twenty people's personal and unique craziness is a flawlessly arranged, beautiful train wreck of energy. Because the actors are spread throughout the theater and constantly embody fascinating characters, the audience never lacks material to ponder, whether they're following the play or not.
It's difficult to pinpoint individual actors in what is truly an ensemble production, and indeed the entire cast deserves immense praise. It is easy to fall into playing insanity in a clichéd manner, and the cast resists this urge and instead drives Weiss' play into a very real, unquestionably creepy place.
Tickets are few, but if you're lucky enough to get one, Marat/Sade is a wonderful way to start some Halloween creepiness.
(Marat/Sade plays at The Secret Theater, 4402 23rd Street, Long Island City, through Saturday October 30th. Performances are Wednesday through Sunday at 8pm and Saturday October 30th at 3:30pm. Tickets are $20 and are available at www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/1681.)