Only in Chicago would a theater company actively seek out to produce a play that has more people onstage than in the audience. Yet that's exactly the case in The Right Brain Project's ridiculously ambitious production of German playwright Peter Weiss' 1963 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 (or, for sanity's sake, Marat/Sade).
In it, 29 actors (and a four piece band) portray inmates of a 19th century French insane asylum who put on this Persecution play-within-the-play. Right Brain Project's blockbox venue seats, at maximum, 24. With so many bodies crammed in a room, things do heat up a bit. But don't worry: complementary fans, bon-bons and wine await you.
Novelty aside, Marat/Sade is a fascinating piece of fictionalized history that takes the tale of Jean Paul Marat, a radical, highly outspoken journalist who became a primary voice for the working class during the French Revolution, and presents it as a warped pageant play, as adapted and directed by the infamously controversial Marquis de Sade, by a group of his fellow insane asylum inmates. The setup is a sort of 19th century PR stint by the asylum to solicit donations from us, the attendees. Yet, the asylum directors soon learn that that the chickens rule the roost.
Director Nathan Robbel certainly has his work cut out for him pulling together this huge undertaking. In less capable hands, staging such a massive show could become a bloody traffic jam. Yet Robbel has established a clear vision, which the large cast wholly commits to. Wherever your eye wanders watching this play, there is some untold back story unfolding -- clearly the actors have established personal monologues for their relationships with the other inmates. But, most importantly, none of this onstage business pulls your focus from the central story. You are always aware of the focus.
And many times that focus is on the wonderfully sharp Vincent L. Lonergan, who plays the Marquis. It's a darkly understated performance that grounds this frenetic play.
Aside from the last few moments that go completely off the rails and manages to miss the mark, this is a truly remarkable production, and the kind of thing that could only be seen in Chicago.
Marat/Sade plays through July 7 at The Right Brain Project. More info here