By Peter Weiss
At the Annex Theater through August 3
The Annex Theater keeps its audience waiting on the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street before each performance of its terrific production of “Marat/Sade.” When the doors finally open, the show has already begun, and the ticketholders are immediately thrust into the action.
The former fast-food joint has been transformed into an 1808 French mental asylum, and the "inmates" are prowling every inch of the floor in their underwear and backless hospital gowns, jabbering disconnected slogans, staring catatonically or singing nursery tunes. The audience is ushered up to two shoulder-high balconies, each containing a single row of 16 plastic seats.
These paying patrons are not only part of the stage; they’re part of the play. They’re the 1808 audience that asylum warden Coulmier (Rex Anderson in a white jacket and blue sash) has invited to witness a theater piece performed by the inmates. Even before the dialogue begins, we are totally immersed—a little uneasy, perhaps, with the hospital patients passing just below our feet but glad to be part of a show where anything might happen.
One of the inmates is Marquis de Sade, the aristocratic libertine who gave us the term "sadism." De Sade had joined the French Revolution in 1789 while in prison for blasphemy, but now, under the rule of Emperor Napoleon, he is languishing in an asylum for his pornographic novels. It is his play, “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,” about the 1793 murder of one of the Revolution’s radical leaders, that the inmates are performing for the asylum’s art therapy program.
Philip Doccolo, who designed the costumes and co-directed the Annex show with Sarah Heiderman, plays de Sade as a cool customer in a dark ponytail and loosened white shirt. He sits in his chair with a mischievous smile on his face, watching his fellow inmates pace the no man's land between rationality and the beyond. He looks like someone who has set up a long line of dominoes and has just tipped over the first.
Across from Sade is the inmate playing the head-bandaged Marat, reclining in a bathtub to ease his painful rashes and scribbling out political diatribes with a white quill pen—a deliberate echo of Jacques-Louis David's famous painting. As Marat, Trevor Wilhelms is rail-thin, with red blotches across his bony back and dark eyes that wince with pain and flash with anger.
“Long live freedom,” shout the inmates, but what exactly is that freedom? For Marat, freedom is absolute economic equality for every citizen, to be imposed, if necessary, by guillotining anyone who disagrees. For de Sade, freedom is the ability to pursue every desire and fantasy, no matter who suffers. For Coulmier, freedom is moderation, the right to voice opinions and pursue goals within limits. The warden is constantly jumping up from his seat and threatening to cancel the play every time Marat and Sade cross those boundaries.
These three men aren’t merely debating philosophy—though they do that quite articulately, thanks to Peter Weiss’s superb 1963 script—they’re also vying for the allegiance of the twitchy inmates who cry, “Revolution Now.” Will that revolution be Marat’s violent squashing of the bourgeoisie? De Sade’s no-holds-barred orgy? Coulmier's orderly, therapeutic healing? Or something that no one in the room can foresee?
The inmates are swayed in one direction and then another, often breaking into song. As the five-member band (violin, trumpet, percussion, guitar and organ) plays a bouncy tune, the inmates sing, “Those fat monkeys covered in banknotes/ Have champagne and brandy on tap./ They’re up to their eyeballs in Franc notes./ We’re up to our noses in crap.” Later they sing, “What's the point of a revolution/ Without general copulation?” Richard Peaslee’s music and Geoffrey Skelton’s translated lyrics from the 1965 British production are catchy enough and ironic enough to lend a Brecht and Weill feel to the proceedings.
The directors, designers, and 22-member cast—who nearly outnumber the audience—do a great job of creating the volatile mix of bureaucrats, revolutionaries, and crazies coexisting in a 19th century asylum. The two leads—Doccolo and Wilhelms—convince us that the intellectual concepts are important, and the rest of the cast convinces us that the more-basic instincts are just as crucial. The play's premise that the play is being performed by untrained hospital patients allows a broad latitude of acting abilities to be credible, even persuasive.
At one point the inmates create a puppet from a red military jacket hung on a crossbar and a cabbage head spiked on a vertical stick. The head comes off in a mock execution, and cabbage leaves are chewed and tossed about for the rest of the show. As the leaves and the splashed water from Marat's tub spill across the floor, the asylum seems to slip further and further out of control. As it does, we’re right in the middle of it, caught up in the danger and excitement.