Don't come to Santa Ana College's production of Marat/Sade looking for a nice, pleasant, check-your-brain-at-the-door experience. Come if you're ready to have your teeth kicked in, your ass spanked red, and your piddly preconceptions of theater re-defined. Sure, you may not understand one-fourth of this no-fucking-around Peter Weiss play from 1964. But if you've got an open mind—and you aren't a dumb shit—you'll walk out knowing you've just been exposed to something that doesn't come along too often, which is exactly what something about the Marquis de Sade should do.
Set in Charenton Asylum, where that icon of perversity, the Marquis De Sade, was interned for the final 13 years of his life after the French bourgeoisie decided he was a threat to public morality—maybe bon mots like, "All universal moral principles are idle fantasies" had something to do with it—De Sade has written a play about the 1793 assassination of French radical Jean-Paul Marat and is using fellow inmates to present it to the same hoity-toity types that got him tossed into the asylum in the first place. Perverse? Of course—but that was the guy's stock in trade.
For the apolitical libertine Sade (a quite commanding Rick Franklin), his play-within-this-play is meant to refute the idea of the French Revolution as an irrational, misguided waste of time and energy: Why storm the Bastille when you can get your freak on in so many deliciously wicked ways? Yet as his production picks up momentum, the paranoiac inmate playing Marat (an equally adept Jeff Paul) becomes so persuasive and impassioned that he wins the other inmates-cum-actors over to his own peculiar convictions. This forces Sade to reevaluate his own principles—or lack thereof.
There are three battles happening in Marat/Sade, and though each takes place on a different battleground—sanity, economy and ideology—they're part of the same war: the campaign to liberate the human soul. And while the struggles over the definition of sanity and the critique of the abuse of the long-suffering French proles are compelling, it's the intense ideological struggle between Sade and Marat that's most engaging—and it's this struggle that makes the play work on so many levels.
It's perverse and profound, expressive and confusing, high drama and low comedy, bloody and sensitive, musical and propagandic, political and anti-political, serenely sublime and messily jumbled. It's a contradiction wrapped in a paradox shrouded in ambiguity, slathered with a rich, peanuty enigma sauce. It's even both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary: Weiss was a devout Socialist and theatrical disciple of Brecht, the theater's reigning Marxist, yet Brecht's wife refused to stage Weiss' play because she thought it went against everything the revolution stood for.
But revolutionary doesn't have to mean anybody was hoisting Molotov cocktails, either. Political fallout aside, Weiss' play is a remarkable exercise in theatrical technique. He skillfully combined two influential aesthetic theories of the 20th century: French lunatic (trs appropriate, no?) Antonin Artaud's director-centric Theatre of Cruelty, which used ritual, shock and violent physical imagery to tap into potent (and deeply submerged) primal forces, and Brecht's theory of alienation, which used a variety of fourth-wall-breaching techniques to distance the audience from the onstage action and connect the performance more effectively to the "real" world. Weiss' expert synthesis of these two not-so-compatible theatrical approaches infuses Marat/Sade with a dialectical energy that few plays since have matched—and we can't forget the S&M play, orgies and narcoleptic assassins, either.
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But can a community college production pull it off? Well, yes and no. Although only an inmate of a 19th century insane asylum would think that these mostly young actors would have the preternatural skill and years of training to truly make Weiss' vision flesh, director Sheryl Donchey and her highly enthusiastic cast and crew make sure that the real substance of the play shines through.
Franklin and Paul are the most mature and skilled actors onstage (the program lists them as guest artists, meaning they aren't Santa Ana College students), but the rest of the ensemble ranges from good to, er, not so good. Anna Hope's petite-but-still-plenty-deranged killer Charlotte Corday stands out, as do the four wholly committed actors portraying Weiss' singing chorus: Daniel Gonzalez, Amy Hallas, Trevor Reynolds and Cory Winch. The live band also works extremely well.
The rest of the ensemble and production, while rough around the edges, attack the material with gusto and enthusiasm, making up in raw energy and chutzpah what they lack in refinement and sophistication. No, it's not a definitive production, but it's still a very good introduction to this incredibly complex and influential play. Go see it, and then buy the published script or check out Peter Brook's 1966 film version. Better yet, do both. And after that, get your freak on.
Marat/Sade at Santa Ana College's Philips Hall Theatre, 1530 W. 17th St., Santa Ana, (714) 564-5661. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $8-$10.