The Fine Art of Madness: Idealism in Upheaval at Twilight Theater Company

The Fine Art of Madness: Idealism in Upheaval at Twilight Theater Company

An anguished, guttural cry echoes from some lofty rafter. A forlorn apparition in filthy clothes and hanging hair haunts the hall. A mammoth, shaven beast lumbers by, and in its wake an unsettling, shapeless form writhes in whispers and shadows across the floor.

Then, twenty minutes later, the show begins…

            The premise of Peter Weiss’ 1963 play is, as simply as it can be explained, the tale of a production written and directed by the Marquis de Sade while confined to France’s Charenton Asylum in 1808. With inmates as actors, de Sade recreates the assassination of journalist and revolutionary Jean Paul Marat fifteen years earlier by Girondin sympathizer Charlotte Corday. The asylum’s director, seated with his back to the audience, grows more and more agitated as once-censored segments of de Sade’s script reappear, granted feverish life by inmates unable or unwilling to subscribe to the ideals of Bonaparte’s new government. Add to this mix a caustically mirthful jester to serve as narrator, and an ongoing battle of revolutionary opinion between the real de Sade and the imagined Marat, and you have some small idea of the proceedings.

This summation, however, drains the manic life from, and does a great disservice to, the wickedly liberating, wildly fascinating, and unnervingly immersive experience that is Twilight’s latest production, Marat/ Sade. The show is a madly glorious cacophony of impassioned diatribes, striking choreography, sardonic moments of empathy, and ghastly humor. It’s a sting to the mind. An acid which bubbles in the veins. A grim festival of lunatic frivolity in loving tribute to the darkest season. And though it is occasionally flawed by lengthy tangents, strained by the weight of unfamiliar history, and chaotic by design, Twilight’s production achieves, with a kind of sharp, frightful beauty, exactly what it sets out to do.

With its sullen, brutal anthems Marat/ Sade may, upon its surface, resemble an echo of Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd, and the righteous will of the French oppressed tearing at the aristocracy could stand as a shadow to Les Mis, but this show has a style all its own. There is an eerily inviting claustrophobia in the staging. Marat trembling in his metal tub at stage right, the Marquis de Sade lounging on the left, and all the lively, suffering mad wandering between them like lost, softly extinguishing stars.

The inmates are adeptly costumed in dirty shifts and drooping rags, and inhabit a stage blanched by strong, greasy lights and half-obscured by sturdy prison bars. With filthy faces and crowns of madness they shake with passions of rage, ardor, indignation, or all three. And with their character’s maladies as badges of identity, the real world actors use vacant stares, desperate outbursts, and nervous ticks to great effect. Stomping, singing, and swearing they perform in grand unison, holding aloft the heated, beating heart of their one true love: revolution.

Each brings something unique to their role: Samuel Alexander Hawkins and his mad priest Jacques Roux, a chained demon of crazed declaration and blazing eyes; Sky McLaren Walton, who embraces Duperret’s sexual depravity with a boyish directness that is both massively disconcerting and darkly comical; Eva Andrews as Charlotte Corday, who embodies the sweetly suffering spirit of an anxious maiden bride. The character may occasionally falter in bearing or task, but the actress hardly ever missteps in song or commanding performance.

These actors as inmates as actors, loosely restrained by nuns and nurses with matching ability, may dance at de Sade’s request, but have, as a sort of band leader from their own ranks, Jeff Giberson’s jester/ narrator, the Herald. A towering rendition of Shakespeare’s fey trickster Puck, Giberson maneuvers the stage in wickedly gleeful amusement. Employing his staff of office as a judge’s gavel, he brings a much needed order to the understandably tangential play within a play. Half-whispering words of encouragement or derision to his charges like an amalgamated angel/ devil at their ear, Giberson masterfully brings the Herald to enchanting life.

            Beyond what would normally constitute the fourth wall, settled stiffly in the audience’s first row, Stan Yeend plays the asylum’s overseer, Coulmier, with the perfect combination of aristocratic authority and moral outrage. Though his character is nearly always present, his contribution is a relatively small one in terms of what the audience sees, but Yeend uses the infrequent interludes to wondrous effect. Seamlessly at ease in his role, he portrays patience at its end, distressed apology, and bureaucratic tantrum in the most natural, realistic way imaginable.  

            Another character who, surprisingly, is far less involved than anticipated, but whose presence is certainly forcefully felt, is the Marquis de Sade himself. Often reclined in cynical contempt or general ambivalence, Randy Patterson’s de Sade spends much of the early play as a dispensary of exhausted observations and halfhearted quips, though in these tired moments Patterson shows a fine understanding of the fires that were, of an unnatural mind tugged toward banality by time and nature. And when it comes time for de Sade to rise, to don his satirical armor and select the scathing, combative words to hurl at his enemy, Patterson gives an excellent display of astringent disgust and pure disdain. Even while burdened by the plays occasional, rambling digressions, Patterson maintains his steady poise. His manner is flawless even if his delivery has some small tendency to waver.

            Finally we have Greg Prosser’s Jean-Paul Marat, a veritable study in deliberate, agonized performance. Prosser’s character suffers the same affliction as de Sade (a script more frequently interested in a dryly academic presentation of the men’s philosophies rather than the men themselves), but like Patterson, Prosser skillfully evokes a character of sympathetic pain, dearly held beliefs, and well-balanced nuance. Attended by his loyal, compassionate, and fearful wife Simonne (played with careful, earnest attention by Jennifer Madison Logan) Marat spends most of his time confined to his tub, furiously committing words to paper and thoughts to air. In this position or standing defiant and nearly bare, Prosser creates a living, breathing man from a historical figure whom many know only by name.

            With a ready, capable group of actors, a fresh interpretation of the chaotic script, and a crew of background volunteers contributing everything and more to seize and violently fling the production to life, director Dorinda Toner and assistant director Sarah Fuller have created a show of beautiful confusion. A product of 1960’s experimental theatre it is sometimes self-indulgent and other times pedantic, and those unfamiliar with the deeds and ideals of the French revolution may lose their way, but there is much to see besides. The broad stitches of this dark dreamwork may show through from beneath the overall pattern, but only to the point of vague distraction. Marat/ Sade is perhaps best viewed as a work of art rather than as traditional theatre. It is a twisting poem with value outside of full comprehension, a roughly chiseled hunk of marble with only the barest suggestions of faces and forms. There are wry parallels to modern day, scenes of daring, bare-breasted frenzy, and choral cutaways. There are rhymes and screams and lectures. And all of this is scooped up by steady hands and sent out to play by artful, passionate minds.

            Marat/ Sade is not, perhaps, for everyone. By the theatre’s own admission, there are areas (of the script) which feel broken, and moments of vulgarity which may deter a casual few. And certainly the seemingly endless tirades of quasi-militant intellectualism can prove tiresome, despite the stirring delivery and deep conviction of the actors. But for the most part these criticisms pale before the grotesque majesty on display. Twilight has done an exceptional job bringing this imposingly experimental, weirdly intricate, frequently bewildering show to life. You may leave this great, black whirlwind of a production somewhat confused. You may leave it appalled. But there is one thing for certain, you will not leave it unmoved or unimpressed.

The show runs October 12th - 28th and tickets are available at https://www.twilighttheatercompany.org/

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