New Crime Productions

at Blue Rider Performance Space

In Marat/Sade, out of the mouths of lunatics history repeats itself. Peter Weiss’s 1964 dramatic disturbance–to call it a play would make it too tame–erupts with a most exciting debate. At issue is a timeless question: if human nature is impossible to reform, do revolutions really change anything?

Representing incompatible extremes on this matter are the radical politico Marat and the Marquis de Sade, the perverse apostle of subjectivity and sex. Marat, denouncer of corruption and avowed enemy of all enemies of the people, represents an inflexible idealism, a rigid ideology that takes no prisoners but has a certain existential elegance: “In the vast indifference I invent a meaning.” His meaning is revolution.

Sade believes only in the random cruelty of nature. Its menacing indifference justifies everything but the illusion of human goodness and the possibility of reform; indeed Weiss has Sade all but prophesy the holocaust and nuclear war. For this apolitical philosopher of pain, the only escape is deep into his privates: “What’s the point of a revolution without general copulation?”

The play’s setting, the asylum at Charenton in 1808, is crucial. Coulmier, the director of this supposedly enlightened institution, has invited various Parisian notables to his clinic to witness a performance given behind bars by his colorful loonies. The creatures will perform a new and, it is hoped, rehabilitative play written by Charenton’s most illustrious madman, the Marquis de Sade. Celebrating the French Revolution, which has now led to Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable triumphs, the play recounts the 1793 murder of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday, a virgin from the provinces who, sick to death of the guillotine’s endless harvests, resolved to kill the biggest killer.

But Sade’s paean to progress founders on a stunning parallel, one that the marquis clearly would like his script to evoke. These Charenton crazies are as repressed by Coulmier’s orderlies as Marat’s masses were in 1793 by the repressive heirs of the revolution. Marat, here played by an inmate with a fully justified persecution complex, knows how to manipulate the mob’s hunger and paranoia to serve his end–the ceaseless feeding of that guillotine. Sade is so faithful to the story that he brings it back to life with all its original violence frighteningly intact.

However censored, the script the inmates enact only reminds them of how much Napoleon has usurped their revolution. They know that torture has not been abolished and that the same enemies of 1793–war profiteers, religious bigots, and capitalist overlords–also prosper in 1808. As they do in 1990.

Ironically, the riot that overwhelms Weiss’s finale is as much a flashback as anything in Sade’s scenario.

Besides the antagonism between Marat and Sade, Marat/Sade abounds in other philosophical and emotional clashes–between the vision of 1793 and the reality of 1808, between inmates and audience, between the play’s characters and the misfits who play them, between Coulmier’s hypocritical optimism and the clinical cruelty of his madhouse, and between the conventional idea of history as a chronicle of the deeds of famous men and history as the story of the unrelieved sufferings of the common people–and their inevitable cyclical revenge.

It’s hard to imagine anything more intellectually invigorating or brilliantly dramatized than this dramatic free-for-all. The play is intoxicated with its ideas. Brechtian in its unashamed sloganeering and Artaud-like in its assault on the audience, Marat/Sade is everything theater should be–engaging, committed, unpredictable, the perfect fusion of action and argument.

All these qualities should have made Marat/Sade the perfect vehicle for New Crime Productions. A troupe who love to hurl themselves into their material (like their pile-driving Alagazam . . . After the Dog Wars and Methusalem), the New Criminals employ a manic commedia dell’arte style that asks from actors inexhaustible concentration, endurance, and energy. Watching Methusalem was like witnessing all the collected passions in the city crammed onto one explosive stage. It was Chicago theater at its unapologetic best.

But this Marat/Sade can only be endured–it’s like seeing a rare garden flattened by a steamroller. Paul Quinn’s staging gets everything wrong, stripping the script of its intelligence and subtlety and the play’s passions of their purpose. The New Criminals take a play that’s about everything and reduce it to an actor’s self-indulgence, a mess of sound and fury signifying nothing. You could leave this witless rant thinking Marat/Sade is a play about shouting your heads off for two hours until you get hoarse and go home.

It’s hard to know where to start the indictment or end it. Little things spring to mind, like Quinn’s making the nuns enjoy the very outrages they should oppose. Among many fatal errors is the way the actors mindlessly play everything on the same level of lunacy; there’s only madness to their madness. Far from making us believe that their suffering matters, we’re glad the psychopaths are locked up. Unlike any other production of Marat/Sade, this one makes you sympathize with the jailers–just the opposite of the playwright’s purpose. It’s as if Nurse Ratched had been made the hero of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The New Criminals forget that in theater as in architecture, “God is in the details.” These thespian vandals rip the play out of Weiss’s elaborately detailed historical context and, among other depredations, cut the pivotal chorus, “Fifteen Glorious Years,” that triggers the inmates’ revolution. You could never tell by this production that the play uses the crimes of 1808 to comment on the futility of 1793. Instead Quinn’s Marat/Sade appears to be set in a bad German cabaret of the 1920s, peopled by hideously painted George Grosz caricatures who, if they ever stepped on a vaudeville stage, would instantly get the hook.

The yahoo acting, which blurs the play’s colors with the same monotonous phony emoting and destroys any illusion of an ensemble, hurls discipline to the winds (sins you never saw in Methusalem). For truth it substitutes dumb ad-libs, primal screams, gratuitous grandstanding, and TV mugging. (And the behavior of the audience was just as bad.) Brian Powell plays Coulmier as if he were blandly emceeing a game show, not frantically trying to quell a riot he richly deserves. Adele Robbins’s neurasthenic Corday gets cheap laughs from the lady’s narcolepsy, a trait that should have given Robbins a huge key to her character, not a sight gag.

The title roles do differ: Bill Cusack’s bellow as Sade is slightly higher than Larry Neumann Jr.’s roar as Marat. (When you’ve seen what Neumann has done on other stages, what he’s reduced to here is a new crime indeed.) Because both actors transform their complex characters into hog callers, whatever Marat and Sade stand for is lost in the decibels. No choices seem to have been made, except in the level of volume. A music video seems inevitable.

Also trapped in this chamber of horrors is Steve Pink, who gives his Herald a stupid French accent the script never called for, then makes a dumb joke out of it. Paula Killen as Rossignol sounds as if she’s learning to sing from tone-deaf banshees. As Marat’s protectress, Sarah DeVincentis seemed for a while as if she might actually go for truth over technique, but by the end she too took her character over a cliff. Only Jef Bek’s score delivers the goods–but they’re in the wrong show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Helene Rosanove.