For a small theater company to undertake a full-bore production of "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"--at the height of the holiday season, no less--takes considerable chutzpah. And there's no doubt that the enterprising company at Theatre of NOTE shows great reach in its production of Peter Weiss' strident but fascinating dramatic diatribe, set in a French insane asylum at the height of the Napoleonic era.
A reach that exceeds the company's grasp--just. Geoffrey Skelton's English version of Weiss' play, featuring verse adaptation by Adrian Mitchell and Richard Peaslee's magnificent music, received a famous staging by Peter Brook and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964 and helped catapult Glenda Jackson to stardom.
Many of the pulses of Bradford Mays' staging at NOTE echo Brook's legendary original, but Mays' staging is very much his own, an organic ensemble effort in which each character, right down to the nonspeaking roles, has been intensively choreographed and molded to the last nuance.
This is the kind of play that requires a big and teeming cast, the larger the better. Mays has trimmed the cast to fit the tiny playing area, but a few key inmates keep the lunatic intensity on the boil, while a handful of baton-wielding guards and nurse attendants struggle to keep these "mad animals" at bay.
Massing his performers on the whitewashed confines of Daniel Mailley's effectively spare set, Mays does an admirable job under constrained circumstances, but he is not as fortunate in his casting of certain key roles. Although David Conner makes an impressively naturalistic Marat, and Bill Robens is hilarious as the sexual maniac Duperret, David Bickford, who sounds an awful lot like Dr. Evil, underplays the Marquis de Sade to a bizarre degree. It's an unwittingly parodic turn that vitiates many of the most memorable monologues in the play.
"Marat/Sade," Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m. Ends Dec. 16. $12-$15. (323) 856-8611. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.