by Byron Woods
3 1/2 stars out of 5
N.C. State University Theatre
Through Dec. 5
THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM AT CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE
2 stars out of 5
Free Association Theater Ensemble
Closed Nov. 20
I can still hear performance poet John Giorno’s trademark, small-time chiseler’s voice—the unlikeliest set of pipes ever to front an art band—railing out the opening lines to his scabrous little downtown dance tune, the appropriately titled “Scum and Slime.”
And though I’m fairly certain he was actually castigating the U.S. President at the time, those same six words also elegantly sum up an apparently unavoidable rite of passage in every stage artist’s life. It’s the one (and, if you’re truly lucky, only) production that ultimately achieves its complete potential for Fail. In front of a live audience.
For me, a certain small-town beauty pageant, now lost to the mists of time, would probably best fit the bill. What would just have been another poignant exercise in small-town socio-sexual hucksterism spun out a lot closer to Grand Guignol when, after enduring two full weeks of sneers from the beautiful—but unwise—contestants, the stage technicians avenged themselves on their tormentors. How? By vigorously sabotaging almost every act on the night of the show.
That was a night for the long knives; the first one I’d ever actually witnessed in person. And though it’s now been several decades since that curtain fell—and great was the fall thereof—they say that, when the lights are hung just right in that high school auditorium, you can still see the faintest outlines of where the doomed production cratered.
While I learned a lot about show biz, humanity and myself during the fracas and its grisly aftermath, it’s not the kind of tale I like to tell—at least not without a generous share of the door, a few hundred witnesses in the audience and a round of drinks shortly after.
Apparently, renowned director Daniel Sullivan felt similarly about several shows from his own past, when he goaded Seattle Rep in 1991 into collaborating on what we might call the theatrical sum of all fears—at least when it comes to holiday fare on stage. The result was a sharp, inspired farce named INSPECTING CAROL.
In it, an embattled “professional” theater company (which, in practice, behaves a lot more like a low-grade community-based affair) finds itself approaching financial and artistic bankruptcy as it struggles to mount the annual production of its one cash cow: that holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.
On the basis of previous defeats, Zorah, the company’s fiery artistic director, has already ratcheted her ambitions downward. At this stage, her idea of a “multicultural initiative” involves casting one minority actor in a bit part with a handful of lines. Even forsaking shows that “erase the borders of theater and life” for hoary retreads like that 1940s chestnut, Harvey, hasn’t worked; with their season campaign just ended, their patron base is down by 50 percent.
The circumstance makes a disillusioned Zorah confide, “I wanted to change people,” to her managing director, Kevin. “What did I mean, change people? Into what?”
“Non-subscribers, maybe?” he replies.
Which is when the really bad news hits. A life-saving grant from the National Endowment for the Arts is jeopardized by previous professional reviews. An inspector now must determine if their work has sufficient artistic merit to justify releasing the funds. Unfortunately, the decision will be based upon their current production of A Christmas Carol.
The set-up in Sullivan’s first act results in the second act’s delightfully disastrous play-within-a-play. In this N.C. State University Theatre production, the theatrical car crash unfolds, at times as if in slow-mo; as grotesque as it is hilarious.
Before director John McIlwee gratifyingly indulges the slapstick of that ill-starred Christmas Carol, he and acting coach Allison Bergman have tasked an impressive Maddison Harris with her commendably crisp, no-nonsense reading of Zorah, and given similar credence to Jordan Manning’s no-fools-left-unsuffered stage manager and aide-de-camp, M.J. Actor Paul Brothers brings absurd arrogance to Larry, the combative lead who has previously hijacked the fictional company’s work, while Kenny Hertling suffers from less than afar as Phil, a supporting actor—and a one-time hookup of Zorah’s. Bergman and regional stage perennial Danny Norris ably acquit the plummy salt-and-pepper roles of self-styled theater veterans Dorothy and Sidney, while Christian O’Neil’s thinner take on the talentless auditioner, Wayne, was redeemed in part by the best Boris Karloff reading I’ve ever heard given to Richard III.
Even if Sullivan’s closing critique of the National Endowment of the Arts now seems ham-handed, the theatrical in-jokes (and out-jokes) surrounding a truly titanic production of Dickens left me unable to stop laughing at a number of points in Act 2. The show closes Sunday afternoon; I’d say catch it while you can.
MARAT/SADE, the full title—and the complete premise of playwright Peter Weiss’ devastating “musical”—is disclosed at the top of this review. Years after the Reign of Terror has concluded, the Marquis de Sade, imprisoned at the asylum for the insane at Charenton, France for backing the wrong political faction during the Revolution, has convinced the administration that it would actually be a good idea if they let him direct a play.
INSPECTING CAROL isn’t the only recent regional production to have centered on a simulated theatrical disaster, however. Free Association Theatre Ensemble—a company which, unfortunately, has flirted with the other, unintended brand of dramatic catastrophe in recent stagings—dared to follow a lackluster September version of TALKING THINGS OVER WITH CHEKHOV with one of the more imposing works of the last half-century in the theater of the avant garde.
The man whose very name now evokes the ultimate in psycho-sexual cruelty and torture wants to make a play about the French Revolution; specifically about the violent death of his friend—and later enemy—Jean-Paul Marat. And he wants to use the inmates in it.
To say the very least, this overwhelmingly bad idea produces a work so harrowing that, in the all the years to come, no one will ever remotely confuse it with an early example of “art therapy.”
In this production, director Julya Mirro actually showed me a new vision of a script that I’ve studied for years; not the easiest of propositions. And given the shameful, systemic—and still unfolding—reduction in care for the mentally ill that has richly earned the state of North Carolina a federal investigation by the Department of Justice (as was revealed last week), at this writing I’m not convinced that Mirro didn't actually produce here something of a work of prophecy.
For this MARAT/SADE wasn't placed in some eerie, historically accurate combination bathhouse and abattoir from the 18th century. Imagine instead a sunny, if clearly improvised, day room in a present-day, woefully underfunded “care facility,” a converted storefront in a low-grade strip mall where too few staffers herded too many patients around abandoned store fixtures and cracked drywall, and over its poorly patched carpet.
And when it came to the settings for their play-within-play, forget expensive set pieces. In particular, lose that unclean bathtub where Marat’s character, with his chronic skin condition, typically spends most of his time. No, think cardboard instead—for the tub, the swords, and most of the larger fittings on a “stage” outfitted with cheap folding chairs, large multicolored foam “noodles,” beads and other negligible, but certainly inexpensive, trinkets.
Given the state’s recent funding trends, we’ll probably be lucky if the facilities used to warehouse the mentally disabled are actually this robust—or look nearly this inviting.
Few things are potentially less theatrically engaging than extended philosophical debate. That makes the scripted arguments between Sade, the nihilist, and the radical Marat a series of potential trouble spots among Weiss’ 33 scenes.
But tellingly, the truest moments in this production were probably Jeff Bergman and Thom Haynes’ increasingly passionate exchanges over the fate of the Revolution—and all human meaning, besides. Haynes’ first lines as Marat were distractingly mannered, and all but uniformly delivered with a cheesy grin, while Bergman’s Sade, who started pretty cold as well, was rendered powerless and phobic in Mirro’s direction when he was “off stage.” Still, when their conflict ignited—as it repeatedly did—we were in the presence of good theater.
Now, if only we’d stayed there more often.
For if we didn’t begin to buy Chris Brown’s Catholic-turned-Satanic priest, we did recognize the fatigue in his voice when his Jacques Roux asked the existential questions that close Weiss’ script: “When will you learn to see? When will you learn to take sides?” Oliver Vest’s Herald was an amusingly mischievous, hyperactive lackey to Bergman’s Sade.
And instead of the original score by Richard Peaslee, this production set Adrian Mitchell’s lyrics to new songs by promising regional musician Erin Brown. Brown’s voice is certainly soulful and haunting, and her version of the show’s anthem, “Marat, We’re Poor,” was an intriguing uptempo variation on the ubiquitous childhood schoolyard taunt I can only capture here as “Nyaa nyaa ny-nyaa nyaa.” Still, Brown struggled against a nagging folk/emo sameness beyond a certain point in her compositions.
But despite the shortcuts that gave this show a realistic, contemporary note of institutional destitution, shortcuts of an artistic nature significantly compromised this unconventional staging's success. Instead of effectively addressing the concerns about the ensemble's fundamental acting abilities that were raised during FATE’s production of CHEKHOV, at times this production almost seemed an attempt to render such questions irrelevant. After all, weren't the inmates at Charenton non-actors? And didn’t their mental disorders preclude any significant expectations of artistic success?
Well, it’s all true—enough. But that logic, such as it is, avoids two fundamental facts: They were still inmates, and most of them were mentally and/or physically ill.
If that distinction did not elude a number of seemingly beginning performers in this cast, we still could not detect it in their performances. Unfortunately, non-acting can easily be distinguished from limited emotional affect, while gestures register differently when they’re only skin-deep, or less. Mick Williams was unready for stage as the hypothetically amorous Duperret, while enough ensemble members who failed to convince reminded us that we were never in a facility for the mentally ill. Or in a show that successfully depicted them, for that matter.
It wasn’t the first—or the 50th—community theater production in which directors without enough performers to actually cast a show went ahead with decent actors in principal roles, and a noticeable number of significantly less developed ones, to put it kindly, in supporting parts. So, yes, it happens.
But it’s not desirable. And it doesn't represent an artistic standard I can endorse as a critic.
In the pre-show publicity for this production, Mirro has reminded us that FATE has an interest in educating and developing beginning and upcoming talent. It’s a very commendable goal. But placing actors on stage before they’re ready, as happened here, all too easily sabotages—and sometimes publicly embarrasses—the same students one claims to support. It shouldn't be standard operating procedure for a publicly producing theater, no matter how noble its educational goals.
The public stage, where people pay full price for tickets—and walk out, never to return, if they’re not satisfied, as some did the night I witnessed MARAT/SADE—is a place where patrons of the arts fully expect to see what artists have already accomplished, not what they hope one day to achieve.
This is not the first time FATE has inadequately discerned between the two in its presentations. Until it does so more effectively, we must withhold our critical recommendation of their work.