Go Deeper

EgoPo has “Cruel” Intentions for their Upcoming Season

Posted July 6th, 2010

This season, Philadelphia-via-New Orleans theater company EgoPo is all about the Theater of Cruelty, 2010-style. The movement, introduced by French playwright Antonin Artaud in the first half of the 20th Century, was determined to shock the audience into an awareness of the violence and cruelty of human life through disturbing sounds, lighting, and performance. Artaud may have ended up in the loony bin, but his theory informed much of the later surrealist and avant-garde drama, including Peter Weiss’s 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 (Marat/Sade). EgoPo’s production of Marat/Sade in the 2010 Philly Fringe will kick off their season-long exploration of Theater of Cruelty.

Philadelphia audiences really started hearing EgoPo’s name in 2005. Here to produce Maids X 2 for the 2005 Philly Fringe, the New Orleans-based company was stranded when Hurricane Katrina struck their city, destroying their theater.

But that story’s been told before.

Today, EgoPo is firmly rooted in Philadelphia, where they’ve carved artistic success out of their themed seasons, which explore the works of one author or movement. Delving into German Expressionism, EgoPo’s 2008 production of Woyzcek took on the strange, difficult, and unfinished play by Georg Buchner to much acclaim, and last year’s examination of Samuel Beckett kicked off with an innovative adaptation of the novella Company during Philly Fringe.

Brenna Geffers is the literary manager of EgoPo, and frequently directs their shows. Over drinks at the 700 Club with the actors Ross Beschler (who played Vladimir in last year’s Waiting for Godot) and Megan Hoke (the lead voice of Memory in Company), Brenna says that, this year, “A season of Genet would’ve been great. He’s one of the world’s most daring and unusual playwrights.”

After the jump: a fight with an estate, madmen, and what else is in the works for EgoPo.

“In this slot I was going to do [Genet’s] The Balcony,” Brenna says. “But the more I worked on that show, the more I connected Genet with Marat/Sade. And I went to Lane [Savadove, founder and artistic director of EgoPo] and talked about doing the Theater of Cruelty.”

Also shoving them down that path was the Genet estate, which, according to Brenna, disliked EgoPo’s Maids X 2 (back-to-back performances of The Maids—one performance with an all-male cast, and one with an all-female cast) so much that it refused to license them further Genet works to perform. And so, a season of the Theater of Cruelty is planned, beginning with Marat/Sade.

Perhaps best-known by the indelible Peter Brook film adaptation, the play is based on historical truths. Indeed, the Marquis de Sade, while imprisoned at Charenton, produced plays that were popular amongst Parisian salon-types of the time. De Sade gave a eulogy for Jean-Paul Marat, a scientist, radical journalist, and advocate of the French Revolution whom Peter Weiss identifies as proto-Marxist. And Marat was assassinated in his bathtub.

In a nod towards historicity, the play will be staged at The Rotunda.

“What I like about the sanctuary space,” says Brenna, “is that I feel it striving for beauty and failing. Which is what I’d like the production to be like.”

They’ve also had Barrymore Award-winner Mat Wright rescore the piece, in order to put their won mark on it as well.

“I think the stuff he’s writing is bringing the melancholy more to the forefront,” Brenna says. “Again, it’s striving to be beautiful but failing. The asylum inmates are trying to succeed. The failure is where the drama comes from.”

One of the remarkable things about Marat/Sade is that simply in virtue of its title, the audience knows exactly what will happen during the play, in terms of overall plot. Nonetheless, there may be a few surprises.

“You get the X-factor of the madmen,” Ross says. “You may know what’s going to happen at the end of the play, but you don’t know what’s going to happen moment-to-moment.”

Marat/Sade does not offer the moment of revelation that characterizes nearly every new contemporary play; instead, its title discloses its events, its setting, and most of its cast—the inmates.

“I find it to be extremely freeing,” Brenna says. “I like pieces that have predetermination built into them, because then it’s about the journey. It makes the sense of predetermination exciting and impressive. These things are circular, but it doesn’t make them less potent.

“I see it less as a political piece and more as a personal piece. What we want as individuals and how society contains us, and what happens when society ceases to contain us. That’s why the environment of the insane asylum is great. Their experiences with societal norms are different than ours. When we walk into the place, we go into the space where their rules are more important than ours.”

“The favorite way I’ve heard somebody refer to the inmates is as ‘socially impossible,'” says Megan, who will play the murderess Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade

Still, the politics of the piece are innate.

“When you look at a piece like this,” Brenna says, “you have to ask how much has really changed. It seems so current, like it’s written about right now. Why is this always the predicament we’re in, the needs of the individual versus the needs of society?”

“What does Marat have to say about what happened?” asks Ross. “We’re invited to conclude what the revolution was about when we read it again.”

Brenna argues that the play itself is a debate. “The playwright definitely agrees with Marat,” she says. “I agree with de Sade.”

Ross, who plays the socialist priest Roux, is taken aback.

“You agree with de Sade???” he asks.

It’s a debate tabled for another time, and for the production of Marat/Sade, perhaps it doesn’t matter. After Marat’s execution, his character, and that of de Sade, essentially evaporate.

“You don’t follow the play through Sade, or Marat,” Brenna says.

“It’s the ensemble,” says Megan. “The audience identifies with the story in some way through the other characters.”

“It’s more about the Herald and Roux than about de Sade versus Marat,” Brenna says. “[The latter two] disappear because they have nothing more to say.”

The Herald is something of our narrative guide, presenting the world of the insane asylum—despite its rigid rules—as madcap and anarchic, a place where anything goes, including the Marquis de Sade producing full-length theatrical pieces for Parisian elites. Roux is based on Jacques Roux, a priest strongly aligned with the Paris Commune, who Weiss depicts as a radical socialist.

If the debate is between these two, well, what happens? Clearly, the wheels fall off the world. But how they fall off is the adventure of the play, one we’ll get to in September.

The rest of next season looks promising for EgoPo as well. The company is adapting Hell, a novel by Henri Barbusse, in which a man in a boarding house spends his life watching the room next door through a peephole. They’re doing a short run of Artaud works, adapting one film scenario and one radio. An additional four readings and symposia will offer audiences some context for the Theatre of Cruelty: how it began, how it became popular, and how it rippled through the theater world.

–Nicholas Gilewicz