Director Nathan Robbel has to be commended for his direction of Peter Weiss’ 1964 epic drama, featuring a cast that outnumbers its audience each night. The tiny RBP Rorschach venue seats a mere 24 patrons in a very warm, tightly cramped auditorium. Robbel’s direction is akin to masterfully juggling cutlery and flaming batons at the same time. With his collection of characters, from nuns to nurses, inmates to the French aristocracy, Robbel is essentially the master of an unholy three ring circus.
Based upon historical facts, this Tony Award-winner is actually a play-within-a-play. As the curtain rises, French aristocrat Monsieur Coulmier, Governor of the Charenton Asylum, explains that because his patients’ treatment includes exposure to history and the arts, he has allowed his famous inmate, the Marquis de Sade, to write and present this play. As enacted by the other inmates, it loosely defends Charlotte Corday’s motivation for murdering the French Revolution’s biggest supporter and rebel rouser, Jean-Paul Marat.
The play is filled with lengthy political and ethical dissertations, contrasted with acts of violence and depravity. This controversial, unrelenting depiction of class struggle (very topical given today’s political turmoil) is meant to shock and prompt discussion without providing answers. The play owes much to the theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty as it steps in and out of its own reality, often using thematic songs sung and played by members of the multitalented ensemble. Because Weiss’ controversial drama is so difficult to produce and sports such a large cast, this is a rare opportunity to experience a play that must be seen, not read, in order to appreciate the power of excellent theatre.