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A Cellblock Smash 

A play about a play performed in a mental institution: Is it any wonder it's nutty?

Wednesday, Mar 10 2004
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Charenton, 1808 -- the Marquis de Sade, incarcerated in a mental institution, writes and directs a play about the death of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat, creating a production that would loom large in his own history. Despite a reputation just as scandalous as a certain blond video-camera-happy heiress, de Sade was neither a pornographer nor a smut peddler. OK, so maybe the man had some kinky tendencies, but BDSM is hardly a crime. De Sade was just a deviant literary philosopher whose novels were meant to challenge conventional ideas, a desire clearly evident in his choice to immortalize the fanatical establishment-scourge Marat.

Set in the Napoleonic era 18 years after the French Revolution, the Marquis' stylized recreation of Marat's bathtub murder had its world premiere in the asylum (where de Sade had been imprisoned for political and sexual crimes) with a cast of sociopaths, schizophrenics, and narcoleptics. The circumstances surrounding that performance were the basis of Peter Weiss' 1964 Berlin stage 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 (filmed and released as Marat/Sade in 1967), and also a central set piece in Philip Kaufman's 2000 movie Quills, which extracted a lot of mileage by casting the creepily compelling Geoffrey Rush as the leering de Sade.

UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies cannot boast such star power with its version of Weiss' venerable play within a play, here called Marat/Sade, given that the cast is made up of talented students. But de Sade's drama -- an educational eye-opener for those who have only a nodding acquaintance with French history -- and the bizarre backstory of its first staging make for the rare spectacle of a work whose history is as much a draw as what's on stage.

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Charyn Pfeuffer

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