You can’t win ’em all. Whether tackling Genet or Beckett or Shakespeare, Classical Theater of Harlem’s imagination and interpretive insight usually invigorates a playwright’s vision of the cosmic repercussions carried by the performance of daily life. But the company stumbles with its revival of the meta-theatrical “Marat/Sade.” Helmer and CTH exec director Christopher McElroen gets so focused on one half of this rarely seen play that he leaves it feeling lopsided.
Peter Weiss’ 1966 Tony winner for play is a fascinating hodgepodge of theatrical theories. Set in 1808 in the French asylum Charenton, it lets the Marquis de Sade and his fellow inmates stage their own play, about the 1793 murder of revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Watching a performance of a performance, which sometimes decays into madness, we’re asked to think about the theatricality of politics while being shocked at the inmates’ behavior.
When it premiered in Peter Brook’s production, critics hyperventilated over the play’s blend of Brecht and Artaud. Like the former, Weiss wants us to consider coolly the political arguments of both Marat, who says the people need equality to survive, and Sade, who says they crave subservience. However, the scribe also respects Artaud’s conviction that theater should be a dagger to our senses, jolting us with primal moments. “Marat/Sade’s” political rhetoric keeps exploding into riots.
McElroen stages the violence, but he never gets around to the thinking. Brutal, loud and messy, the production emphasizes the nihilistic idea that we’re all in a madhouse of corrupt leaders; attempts to overthrow them will only reveal our own savagery. That theme is certainly in the play, but while Weiss entangles it with other ideas and leaves us to decide how we feel, McElroen makes chaos his moral.
In a nod to Brook’s design, which staged the play behind jailhouse bars, helmer sticks his cast in a chain-link cage. We enter to see almost 40 naked male inmates dressing themselves for the show as guards with clubs stand by. Through chain-link holes and under harsh fluorescent lights, they already seem like debased animals.
And there’s chain-link behind us, too. As the story of Marat’s murder gets told through speeches, scenes and songs, men often stand at our backs. They rattle the fence or mutter things in our ears, making it clear we’re all part of the great big nuthouse of society.
That device can be chilling, especially when bizarre chants are sung from every direction. But the hissing and moaning are distractions when Weiss shifts his dramatic approach. He gives both Marat (Nathan Hinton) and Sade (a menacing T. Ryder Smith) complex speeches about their political philosophies. These moments provide a crucial intellectual balance to the riots, but McElroen never quiets his ensemble long enough to let us pay attention. Entire sections are incoherent because they can’t be heard over the man yelping in the corner.
With the exception of Smith and Hinton, thesps also speak with unnatural inflections and cadences. That may advance the mood of mental illness, but it makes it impossible to follow the logic of, say, Charlotte Corday (Dana Watkins) as she explains her reasons for stabbing Marat in his bathtub.
Since the production’s individual thoughts are incomprehensible, it only communicates generalized hysteria. McElroen tries to keep escalating the intensity — even having Ryder cover himself in (hopefully) fake feces while delivering a speech — but when there are no moments of quiet, volume loses meaning.
In the theater, loud and louder aren’t really contrasts. They’re just part of the same numbing roar.