Dallas — Peter Weiss wrote his title-burdened 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 — commonly shortened to Marat/Sade — in German in the early 1960s, a generation after the twin cataclysms of the Third Reich and a world war. This generation became obsessed with history; not necessarily the events of history but rather the meaning of history and the ways in which that meaning can be politicized.
Weiss chose to participate in these debates obliquely. Instead of confronting Germany’s recent history head-on, he wrote about a rather obscure event from the French Revolution, which had happened a “safer” 170 years prior (in 1793) and was, by most accounts, one of the “good” revolutions. To further complicate matters, the play, as written, actually takes place 15 years after Marat’s assassination in the form of a play-within-a-play at Charenton, a real psychiatric hospital where the real Marquis de Sade produced plays while institutionalized from 1801 until his death in 1814.
The multi-talented Jason Leyva, who portrays the haplessly afflicted Marat, designed the set as well as sound and lights for this season-opening production from Leyva’s L.I.P. Service Productions. Harsh florescent lights shine overhead. One wall is a simple accordion room divider. Nothing fancy, but a nonetheless fitting space for a play like Marat/Sade. Studio mirrors are plastered with plastic wrap so that the audience isn’t staring at its reflection. The distorted reflections add to the carnivalesque, funhouse mirror atmosphere of the play.
Bert Pigg directs the production at Amy’s Studio of Performing Arts, a dance rehearsal studio in far north Dallas. Unlike Weiss, Pigg doesn’t shy away from dealing with recent history. His updated script references waterboarding and Russian collusion. He transposes the setting to present-day America in an unnamed institution (while keeping original references to Charenton). The asylum’s army of male nurses and nuns have been replaced by two imposing guards with an ironic “security” emblazoned on their uniforms. For Pigg’s production, the quasi-institutional space of Amy’s Studio is remarkably effective.
A preshow punk band made up of Kennedy B. Styron, Caleb J. Pieterse, and Zach Leyva welcomes the audience to the space. The three mental asylum patients-cum-musicians play an impromptu concert of stripped-down covers of the Beatles’ “Revolution,” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” and “Three Little Birds” and “Get Up, Stand Up,” both by Bob Marley. Their screamed lyrics, banging snare, and angular guitar licks acclimate the audience for the ensuing bedlam.
The musicians also serve as the asylum’s house band of sorts, accompanying the ensemble during the play’s several songs, which are there to punctuate the drama in this play with music. Thankfully, the snare doesn’t often overpower the vocals.
The only words just impossible to hear were updated lyrics to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” which Pigg uses to replace “Fifteen Glorious Years,” a song meant to intentionally interrupt the climax of Marat’s murder. It fills in the historical context between Marat’s assassination in 1793 and Sade's (played by Malcolm Stephenson) production of his play in Charenton 15 years later.
The reworked Billy Joel hit accompanies a video designed by Joshua Hahlen, a slideshow of American historical events and Presidents, from a stoic George Washington to a scowling Donald Trump, thus bridging the timespan between the late 1700s and the present. Since this was the only “original” song in the production, it might have been a good idea to have the lyrics subtitle the slides in order to better convey their message. The main problem with hearing the song was that it was sung by one person into a microphone instead of unamplified throughout the small performance space by the ensemble.
And what an outstanding ensemble! It is a pleasure to watch the micro-dramas develop “behind” the scenes as the actors, when they aren’t portraying revolutionaries, fully commit to their roles as inmates of a mental hospital.
Leyva’s Marat is perfectly unhinged. He organically shifts between afflicted, almost catatonic mental patient and hellfire prophet of the Revolution, all while soaking in his bath. Because Marat spends the majority of the play center stage in the bath, actual water or even just water sound files could’ve helped to soften the acoustics of the space as well as strengthen the play’s natural effects.
Stephenson's Sade is less convincing. His conversational tone throughout the performance belies the character of sadism’s namesake. A line such as “Everything fills me with terror” is delivered almost listlessly. Stephenson manages to display greater range in his whipping scene and elsewhere, but it’s not quite enough for such a pivotal role.
Marat is attended by his mistress Simonne Evrard. Christina Kudlicki Hoth beautifully portrays her damaged frailty, tinged with anxious fretting. Her compulsive wiping of Marat’s brow with iodine-soaked sponges is a potent visual image. Hoth also deserves praise for serving as the production’s movement coordinator. Amy’s Studio is tight, especially with a full house of about 30 people, but she masterfully utilizes the space without it feeling crowded.
Britnee Schoville, as the somnambulant assassin Charlotte Corday, steals the show in several scenes. She instinctively knows when to milk laughter from the audience with a deadpan delivery as well as when to hush the audience by revealing Corday’s aching vulnerability. Corday’s consort Duperret is superbly played by Shawn Gann as an enjoyably over-the-top, Queens-inflected, mincing, sex freak. Seth Johnston as the lisping, Hawaiian shirt-clad Herald and R. Andrew Aguilar as the chained-up radical socialist rabble rouser Jacques Roux are equally strong.
Brian Hoffman is Coulmier, the director of the asylum. He prides himself on his enlightened sophistication. Hoffman conveys the director’s fastidiousness even as chaos erupts among the inmates. He’s quick to congratulate himself for his visionary leadership, and his smarmy thumbs-up and fist bump with Sade are nice touches.
Finally, the staging of the curtain call might be reconsidered. With lights out, the actors shine a flashlight on their own face when their name is announced. Not only is it difficult to hear the name through the amplified PA, but the audience doesn’t know which direction to look for the person being announced and applauded. After such skilled performances, an all-too-brief flash of light is too little a celebration of the actors’ accomplishment.
Still, this production is daring, and, it turns out, timely.