If you can picture inmates not just temporarily running an asylum but enacting a politically inflammatory play within its walls, directed by no less a personage than the Marquis de Sade, then you can picture – and immensely enjoy - “Marat/Sade: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade,” written by Peter Weiss and directed by Andrew Vonderschmitt for the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre.
It’s the story of the inmates given permission – it’s supposed to be therapeutic – to stage the story of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, a revolutionary and journalist. The production takes place, but not without the expected and, mostly benign, outbursts by the inmates and the attempts of Coulmier (Colton Dillion), the hospital’s director, to censor the treasonous bits that were supposed to be cut out.
We’re absorbed in the production’s spectacle. Donna Fritsche’s costumes are white but they look like pieces of blank paper beginning to char above a flame. They show various odysseys of white – symbolic of the lives of the characters - from slightly sullied innocence to full out debauchery and dementedness. Vonderschmitt’s set is more dreamlike (read: nightmarish) than squalid. Combined with Donny Jackson’s lighting, it creates an off-white purgatory, a few psychological steps up from hell.
There’s so much going on in the production that it could easily spiral out of control. There’s a play within a play, set in an insane asylum, no less. There’s the inflammatory nature of the play; Marat and his death were still in the minds of the intended audience. There are so many people on stage at once that it feels like a rave or a riot or a ruckus. There’s much action attendant to the behavior and acting chops of the inmates (Think “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). There are so many historical, political, and philosophical references, so many layers of shock and awe, least of which is Sade pleasuring himself shamelessly with a couple of the inmates, one female, one male. That it doesn’t spiral out of control is a testament to Vonderschmitt’s exemplary ability to focus our attention on the story’s main character, Sade, and to Wagner’s exemplary ability to keep Sade both in and out of the fray.
You can watch it as a chilling enough and compelling historical document of the French Revolution. You can watch it as a psychological document of the French Revolution’s end result which, as witnessed by the disenfranchised inmates themselves, translated to squat. Both ways work; but I think what Vonderschmitt was doing was showing us what any director does with any production – engage in a dialogue with his characters. That’s the main storyline here, performed flawlessly. For a good part of the production, Sade is discoursing with Marat, always scribbling away in that tub, on whether revolutions are societal or personal. You have to wonder whether Vonderschmitt was doing the same with Sade, Marat, Corday, and Coulmier.
The ensemble performance is outstanding. Each character is perfectly cast, especially Wagner as Sade and Waite as Corday. Wagner’s Sade is diabolical, a cross between Joseph Goebbels and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He’s either amused and detached, as we certainly are, watching the proceedings, or he’s in the heat, literally the heat, of the action, again, as we are, giving and receiving. There’s a reason, after all, why he’s got a noun named for him. While his detachment and engagement are hot and cold, seamless, those of Waite’s Corday are schizophrenic. We see her before the story starts, a seemingly innocent, slightly off waif bouncing around the stage. What could she possibly be doing there?, we wonder. But then, at the behest of Sade – she submits willingly enough - she suddenly morphs into a maenad, hair down, all sense of propriety and decorum out the window. Her transformation is as sudden as it’s mesmerizing.
There’s no beginning and no end here. As we enter the theatre, some of the inmates amuse themselves, each other and, especially us, just as in the 1967 film, The King of Hearts. It doesn’t so much begin as accelerate. Same with the end. Marat is dead (No spoiler alert necessary – it’s in the title.), the house lights sort-of go on, we look at the stage, at each other, not sure whether to stay or go. The ambiguity is purposeful – though the play is about politics, about philosophy, about history, it’s really about our human condition – do revolutions of any kind change society, do they change individuals – are they even worth the effort?
Performances are 8pm, Friday and Saturday, 2pm, Sunday. The show runs until July 9. Tickets are $14-$24. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim Street, Long Beach, 90804. For more information, call (562) 494-1014 or click here.