By an eerie coincidence, the Maryland Stage Company's production of "Marat/Sade" opened the day after the jury's decision in the Rodney King case. Watching the asylum workers trying to subdue patients with clubs in the play, it was impossible to divorce the theatrical images from the repeatedly broadcast videotape of the King beating.
Nor should such an effort even have been attempted. As is suggested by its unwieldly unabridged title -- "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade" -- Peter Weiss' drama is an examination of anarchy. When the play debuted, nearly three decades ago, its 19th century French madhouse setting seemed like a metaphor for the turbulent 1960s.
The late German playwright would no doubt be saddened by the timeliness of the current production -- mounted by the resident company of the University of Maryland Baltimore County -- but he probably wouldn't be surprised. In fact, a feeling of resignation permeates Sam McCready's portrayal of Sade, director of this play-within-a-play -- a dramatic format that contrasts the Marquis' notions of individual freedom with Marat's revolutionary ideals.
For that matter, McCready's sense of resignation sets the tone for the entire production. Although Weiss' script allows for a range of political interpretations, Maryland Stage Company artistic director Xerxes Mehta doesn't seem to be siding with either Sade or Marat. Instead, he is registering dismay and disillusionment -- graphically illustrated by the direction of the final scene.
Weiss' stage directions call for Sade to laugh "triumphantly" as the nurses violently restrain the rebellious patients. At UMBC, the patients appear victorious, but more significantly, the play's climactic image is that of McCready's Sade sitting defeated and disheartened at the edge of the stage.
This scene exemplifies the restraint, as well as style, that distinguishes much of this production. These qualities are immediately evident in the subdued black-and-white color scheme of the set, designed by Mehta and Lewis Shaw, and the costumes by Elena Zlotescu.
Regrettably, John Wynne gives a one-note declamatory performance as the revolutionary leader. But Wendy Salkind is both touching and spooky as the narcoleptic inmate who portrays Marat's assassin, Charlotte Corday. In lesser roles, Rick Lowe, Linda Stein and James Brown-Orleans acquit themselves admirably, as do the onstage musicians.
On the most basic level, "Marat/Sade" demonstrates that rebellion is easy -- any madman can do it. But the balance between order, sanity and free will is tougher to achieve. Weiss' play suggests the French Revolution didn't get it right, nor did the anarchic 1960s. Judging from recent headlines, we certainly haven't made much progress in the intervening years.
"Marat/Sade" continues at the UMBC Theatre Thursday through Saturday. Call (410) 455-2476.