Marat/Sade might seem like an unusual choice for the Thrillpeddlers. Could a theater troupe devoted to tawdry musical revues and glow-in-the-dark spook shows really pull off Peter Weiss's heady, multilayered play about French Revolutionaries, the new ruling class, and the insane asylum inmates who are acting out the whole thing?
In fact, the Thrillpeddlers, with their joyful, subversive spirit and their willingness to put anything onstage, shine just the right light on Weiss's philosophical, syntactically complex text -- but a text that also features a scene called "copulation pantomime." The Thrillpeddlers' humor does not just relieve; it aids in understanding. The leads aren't just deeply immersed in the world of the play; they make bold choices with word, movement, and character that feel at once surprising and natural. Most importantly, the 25-person ensemble isn't just a backdrop; rather, the collective is the star of the show. Each member of the cast has a fully fleshed out relationship with every other member, creating a lively society-in-miniature. The ensemble's unflagging energy is downright contagious, making the play's oft-sung mantra, "We want our rights and we don't care how / We want our Revolution NOW," sound less like a cliché of the Left and more like an urgent new idea, and one that could actually come to pass.
The full title of Weiss's play is in effect a summary: 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. In other words, the Marquis de Sade (a charismatic, thoughtful Jeff Garrett), an aristocratic beneficiary of the revolution, is staging a play about the murder of his nemesis, Jean-Paul Marat (Aaron Malberg), the revolution's voice of the people, by Charlotte Corday (Bonni Suval). The actors are mental patients, and the audience members (with whom we are associated) are the leaders of the hospital. The purpose of the play-within-a-play, as the prologue outlines, is medicinal: "We're modern and enlightened and we don't agree / with locking up patients We prefer therapy / through education and especially art / so that our hospital may play its part."
Sade's play is an act of revisionist history. It portrays only his version of the revolution. Yet often, through either Sade's subversion (or carelessness?) or the patients' slips of tongue (and ideology), his play conflicts with the establishment's credo, forcing hospital director Coulmier (Brian Trybom) to interrupt the proceedings: "Please keep your production under control / Times have changed times are different / and these days we should take a subtler view of old grievances." At first, his chidings quickly return the patients to their comatose performances of watered-down text, but soon all their lines about revolution stir something primal and irrepressible in them.
The parallels with Occupy are written on the walls -- literally (James Blackwood designed the graffiti-laden set), especially with the production's Bastille Day weekend opening. But under the direction of Russell Blackwood, the production never feels hackneyed; its revolutionary ardor is pure, its lunacy only over-the-top (or topless) in just the right places.
Marat/Sade continues through July 29 at Brava Theater, 2781 24th St. (at York), S.F. Admission is $25 - $38.