“Marat/Sade” at California Stage

California Stage’s production of Marat/Sade is exhausting.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Art isn’t always meant to be pretty, and Marat/Sade is definitely thought-provoking.

The show, written by Peter Weiss in 1964, is a play-within-a-play set in an insane asylum of the early 1800’s. Coulmier, the head of the asylum, has invited you, the audience, to see this “art therapy” directed by the Marquis de Sade. The actors, who are patients at the asylum, tell the story of the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat by Charlotte Corday.

This show requires focus. There are reams of philosophical dialogue, complicated characters, and uncomfortable situations. Because of the heavy material, the performance feels a bit like a marathon though it’s only about 90 minutes long.

Richard Spierto plays the Marquis de Sade. He gives this manic performance a steady anchor and manages pages upon pages of dialogue for the role. In particular, his gruesome retelling of the demise of Robert-Françoise Damiens was frighteningly fascinating.

Jean-Paul Marat is well-played by Mark Gonzalez. He is able to draw attention and interest without flashy staging – he stays in a bathtub for the majority of the play. Marat and Sade, seated on opposite sides of the stage, are solid bookends for the performance.

The sex-crazed Duperret, played by Kyle Burrow, was downright creepy. Sabrina Fiora’s Carlotte Corday was dreamy in demeanor and halting in speech. She was perfectly unnerving.

Michael RJ Campbell in the role of the Herald is a highlight. He sometimes shepherds the patients/actors into place, and other times causes mischief. Throughout the show, his character’s dialogue helps to flesh out the story in rhyming couplets.

Along with Campbell, Red Marie Randolph, Rodney Parada, and Penny Kline play the colorful troupe of clowns. This quartet adds comic relief to the dense material, and voices Richard Peasles’ discordant and occasionally strident music. Their interludes are some of the best parts of the show.

The play’s pace is good until the last 20 minutes or so. We know what is coming—Corday is going to kill Marat—but the almost lethargic pace toward the end of the performance feels a little self-indulgent.

According to Sade at the end of the play, “So for me the last word can never be spoken/I am left with a question that is always open.” Philosophical and moral questions fly, but there are no straight answers to be found.

Marat/Sade plays through August 10. More information and tickets can be found HERE.

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