Make no mistake, this is a weird play. It opens with inmates shuffling about the dreary asylum – some are restrained. And suddenly some of them are shouting and singing, because this is a quasi-musical.
CAST: "[Chanted words] Screaming in language that no one understands Of the rights that we grabbed with our own bleeding hands…"
Several of these inmates were prominent players in the recent French Revolution. One man in a straightjacket – with an earnest gleam in his eyes – calls for more insurrection.
JACQUES ROUX: “We demand the opening of the granaries to feed the poor. We demand the public ownership of workshops and factories. We demand the conversion of churches into schools, so that now at last something useful can be taught in them."
The French Revolution was notorious for the frequent use of the guillotine to execute those hastily convicted of crimes, and the Marquis de Sade himself offers a scary recollection.
MARQUIS: "As the tumbrels ran regularly to the scaffolds and the blade dropped and was winched up and dropped again [Whiplash.] all the meaning drained out of this revenge It had become mechanical. [Another blow)"
Ultimately, the Marquis turns to the audience and poses the difficult question – what is the point of having a revolution? But that moment comes late in the play, and I don’t want to spoil the ending.
Scenes of madness and attempted assassination are sandwiched between lofty philosophical thought and deranged Cabaret-style songs. The hallucinatory atmosphere is amplified by the scorching heat inside California Stage’s venue -- a converted metal industrial shed.
“Marat/Sade” is inherently political, dark and dangerous -- it’s intended to frighten and offend you at times. The play was catnip for ambitious theater companies in the 1960s, and it’s still challenging. The California Stage production has a huge cast with professional and community actors. There are some rough spots, but also many scenes that click. It’s a rare chance to see a show that people are still debating and discussing, five decades after it premiered.
The California Stage production of “Marat/Sade” continues on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through August 10, 2014.