Marat/Sade rife with revolution, madness and murder

Theatre @ York’s 2009-2010 season culminates with Marat/Sade, a landmark classic of the modern repertoire. Toronto stage director Leah Cherniak brings her trademark physicality to playwright Peter Weiss’ bold and bloody investigation of a post-revolutionary world, on stage March 21 to 27 at the Joseph G. Green Studio Theatre, 139 Centre for Film & Theatre.

Left: Leah Cherniak

Originally set in a mental institution in 1808, Marat/Sade is essentially a play within a play. An episode from the French Revolution is re-enacted by the variously deranged inmates. The author and director of the tumultuous drama, the Marquis de Sade, pits himself in debate with the soon-to-be-assassinated demagogue, Jean-Paul Marat.

Theatre @ York’s fresh take on Weiss’s searing drama takes the characters out of the asylum and puts them on the streets. The characters may not be as recognizably crazy, but they still have their problems. By placing them in a “normal” milieu, Cherniak hopes to make them more familiar to the audience, while allowing the actors to explore the lives of today’s marginalized people.

“Revolution and debate inherently seek to define what is right and what is wrong. And yet ambiguity, contradiction and doubt appear everywhere in this play,” says Cherniak, who was trained at the Jacques Lecoq International Theatre School in Paris. “I’m interested in how, through their characters, the performers see themselves in relationship to the ideas of the play: to revolution, individualism, change, activism, violence and death. Especially how they perceive what power, if any, they have or wield in their world today.

“Ultimately I am moved by the enduring humanity of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, as the players reflect our human suffering and our hope,” she says.

Cherniak is co-founder, with Martha Ross, of Theatre Columbus. The company has created over 25 new plays as well as mounting innovative productions of classics. Cherniak has directed most of the company’s repertoire, including Hotel Loopy, Gynty (adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt), The Barber of Seville, Paranoia, The Betrayal (which won a Chalmers Award for Best Canadian Play), The Cherry Orchard and Twelfth Night. She co-created and directed the multi-award-winning play The Anger in Ernest and Ernestine, which has been produced all over the world, and created and played the role of Jelly in The Attic, The Pearls and 3 Fine Girls for Theatre Columbus.

Cherniak also directs for other theatres such as Tarragon Theatre, the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, Blyth Festival and many others. 

Right: Jean Paul Marat’s death, illustrated by Jacques Louis David (1793). Image: Wikimeida Commons.

German-born playwright Weiss (1916-1982) was a highly honoured writer whose artistic pursuits included painting and experimental films as well as Kafkaesque novels and plays. He was an active member of the Communist Party of Sweden, where he made his home from 1939. Marat/Sade is his most famous work. He explains its premise through the words of the Marquis: “Our play’s chief aim has been to take to bits great propositions and their opposites, see how they work, and let them fight it out." His other plays include The Investigation, based on transcripts from the Nuremberg Trials of the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities, and Trotsky in Exile, a chronicle of the wanderings of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Theatre @ York’s production of Marat/Sade features talented young actors from York’s theatre program and a creative team of undergraduates handling all aspects of the production design and execution. The show is set to a score performed live by four rising young artists in York’s Department of Music.

Now in its 40th season, Theatre @ York is one of Toronto’s longest-running theatre companies. Every year, the company features some of Canada’s most promising stage talent in a challenging and entertaining slate of plays drawn from the contemporary and classical repertoire.

Admission is pay-what-you-can for the March 21 preview and $5 for the March 22 preview. It is $17 for the regular run or $12 for students and seniors. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the York University Box Office Web site or call 416-736-5888.