Theater of Cruelty

Actor's Co-op's production of Marat/Sade wins out over dated text

I have a recurring fear when at the cinema. On screen, the hero gives his "hoo-hah" turnaround speech in Act Three and the assembled athletes, factory workers, or grateful villagers that have thronged about him break into a riot of applause. At this point I discover that I, too, having momentarily forgotten my status, am on my feet, loudly joining the euphoria in an otherwise motionless auditorium. To complete the torture I must then make my choice between hacking through the confusion of knees around me in a bid for the aisle, or sitting back down under the icy deluge of contempt.

As an educated man, of course, I dread nothing more than being the most emotional person in the room, and while there's little chance of that amid the screams and howls of Marat/Sade, the fourth wall that keeps us removed from the on-stage action is, by the end of the play, no more than rubble. In Peter Weiss' famous study of post-Revolutionary French lunatics briefly taking over the asylum, events quite literally bleed into the audience. The correct response to this play is at least partial bafflement, and it is therefore to the production's credit that we leave pondering odd, wordless thoughts, moved by what we have witnessed but unsure of in which direction.

Like many bold experiments of its era, the play has not wholly passed the test of time, and some of the writing today seems a little clunky and repetitive. But in Amy Hubbard's bright and energetic realizing of what is still the best-known example of the Theater of Cruelty, we are afforded more than a few glimpses of the Actors Co-op at its very best.

The production is greatly helped by its venue, Ironwood Studio, a scuffed but charming space that gives off the comforting smell of light engineering. Jason Fogerty's ramshackle set provides almost as much variety and interest as the cast, a pleasingly diverse rabble, each member suggesting a different form of insanity. When various inmates start screaming for freedom at the tops of their voices, one gets a full blast of theater's unique ability to jolt. Indeed, throughout the play, the madder the moment, the more convincing it is. The low point of this nexus is the insipid on-stage audience of the Coulmier family, whose absence of credible authority deprives us of the play's main stratum of dramatic tension.

But there are some fine performances among the patients. After his immensely satisfying portrait of White in last season's The Sunset Limited, Greg Congleton once again marries a heavy presence with lightness of foot in his edgy yet insouciant portrayal of the Marquis de Sade. His wet eyes ever-watchful, Congleton—despite the occasional over-use of his arms—has at times the full menace of a John Malkovich.

Jacques Durand as Jean-Paul Marat is obliged to spend most of the performance twitching and gurgling ineffectually in his bath. But he can turn on a sixpence, and his shriek on the line "I am the revolution!" is blood-curdling.

Though we watch theater in panoramic widescreen, we recall it as a series of close-ups. This is especially true of Amy Hubbard's performance. As well as directing the production, Hubbard radiates a curiously powerful presence as Marat's mournful wife, Simonne Evrard. Little more than a tacit onlooker for much of the time, when she begins to listlessly drum her fingers on the rim of the tub this silent little gesture cuts through the surrounding cacophony as effectively as nails on a chalkboard. It is perhaps through the pressures of wearing two hats that Hubbard failed to administer the necessary slapped wrist to her lighting designer who, by not accounting for the two on-stage pillars, allows de Sade to give two of his key speeches in a mesh of shadow.

Hubbard's chief service to the play is her directorial insistence on pace. The company bounds enthusiastically through the piece, only rarely sacrificing nuance.

De Sade's play-within-a-play draws its power not from what it is but what it represents, and the same is true for the Actor's Co-op production. Offering up such challenging fare shows a high regard for Knoxville tastes. I hope the city returns the compliment. m