KEARNEY — The stage play, “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,” tells a broad story of human suffering and class struggle by using a story within a story.
“The actual play takes place in an insane asylum in France,” said director Jack Garrison. “And the play within the play shows the Marquis de Sade writing and directing a play about the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat that took place 15 years before the action of the play in 1808. So, what you have here is a play staged by the inmates of the insane asylum. You have a play the inmates performing and the external play of this being an asylum in Paris.”
Confused? Garrison finished his explanation by saying, “Does that make sense?”
The play, written by German playwright Peter Weiss (1916-1982) and usually shortened to “Marat/Sade,” appeared on Broadway in 1964 and won a Tony Award for Best Play along with a string of other awards.
Based on historical events, the play highlights the troubles of Sade.
“He was arrested and put in an insane asylum to isolate him because of his radical political ideas,” Garrison said. “He planned to write these plays and perform them so that people will come in and watch them and learn his ideas about life and philosophy.”
The action on stage shows how the marquis sought to circumvent his imprisonment.
University Theatre at Kearney will present “Marat/Sade” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through March 14 and at 2 p.m. March 15 at the Miriam Drake Theatre in the Fine Arts Building on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus. Admission is $10.
“Some people feel like this is a comedy. I don’t think it is,” the director said. “It was written in Germany about the same time Berthold Brecht was writing in Germany. This style of theater is trying to be more intellectual than emotional. It fails at that because there is a tremendous amount of passion and emotion in this play about the assassination attempt.”
While based on historical facts and featuring historical characters, the playwright used his creative license to make the story more entertaining.
“I’ve wanted to direct this show for a long time,” Garrison said. “I like it because it is so multi-layered and there is so much activity going on. It’s a real challenge to stage. The way I’m directing it, there are 27 people on stage for the entire duration of the play. No one really leaves the stage, except at intermission and at the end of the play.”
As a director, Garrison arranges the elements of theater — lighting, set design, blocking — to focus the attention of the audience on various places during the action. To make it even more complicated, the plot features places in the script that employ more than one point of focus.
“This is a real acting challenge for about four of the main characters,” he said.
The production uses metaphors as well as allegory to tell the story.
“There are the debates that go on between Sade and Jean-Paul Marat, who was against royalty and part of the French Revolution,” Garrison said.
While hiding from the authorities in the sewers of Paris, Marat contracted a skin disease.
“That’s why he’s in the asylum; for treatment of his diseases,” Garrison said.
In some ways the play is a political treatise but Garrison sees only a general reflection to any specific political era.
“This was written in the 1960s, but it’s very universal,” he said. “The themes of ‘Marat/Sade’ can easily apply to different time periods. Obviously during the ’60s there were a lot of things going on. This is not ‘Hair’ but the show includes songs that help break up the intensity of the play.”
Instead of advancing the plot, the music summarizes the action — something commonly found in German theater during the 1960s.
“The music constantly involves the audience and jerks them out of involvement of the play,” he said.
While the play sounds challenging, Garrison notes that audiences need to know nothing about German theater of the mid-1960s to appreciate the show.
“The action is all brought out fairly straightforward in the play,” he said.