THE MOST INTRIGUING aspect of Madame de Sade--a look at the notorious whipster from women's p.o.v.--might be the playwright himself, the prolific and renowned Yukio Mishima, born in Tokyo in 1925. The story goes that as a boy he had his first orgasm upon viewing Guido Reni's painting of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. An appropriate awakening for a man whose life and writings would be deeply affected by what he called "my heart's leaning toward Death and Night and Blood." And eerie for a kid who would one day take his own life in a kind of secular martyrdom.
A bookworm and self-described nihilist, he was also a gay man in a heterosexual marriage who had a taste for sadomasochism. He sculpted his physique into an anatomy chart of musculature through weightlifting, he acted in a gangster movie, and built a reputation as a bon vivant. He also wrote bountiful novels, stories, and plays, as well as Kabuki and No dramas, and penned Madame de Sade in 1965. Three years later he took charge of a small army of nationalists who wanted to revive samurai tradition, and in 1970 they invaded a military headquarters in Tokyo--with swords--and took one general as a hostage. Then, after Mishima yelled at a huge crowd of soldiers to overthrow the government and reinstate imperial law, he cut open his gut and a disciple sliced off his head.
What happened between orgasm and seppuku was a probing of life's dank corners, done to the extreme in Madame de Sade. The play is infused with both Mishima's powers of poetic seduction and his hyper-intellectual hunger for clarity on some of life's murkier topics. Neither Sade nor any other man appears in the play, and Mishima shows off his gender-flexible mind through six women: Sade's wife, Renee (Rhonda Lund), her mother (Randy Sue Latimer), her sister, Anne (Nancy Griggs Morgan), their maid, Charlotte (Dawn Reed), and two Janus figures--the overpious Baroness de Simiane (Wendy Freshman) and the lascivious Comtesse de Saint-Fond (Lauralee Perdue). Under director/designer Joel Sass, the usually campy Mary Worth company steps onto virgin ground, and while the show is hardly perfect, it's an impressive first shot at earnestness. (Coincidentally, Eye of the Storm is also preparing a play about Sade for later this month.)
The stage is empty but for actors in period costumes (by Amelia Breuer) and a collage of violent and/or strange images plastering the walls. The script is pure talk: Mishima intended it as a dance of ideas, not of action; he uses language to embroider layers of memories and secrets, self-deceptions and seeming confessions. I was reminded particularly of Arthur Miller's The Price (1968)--it was no surprise to learn he's a Mishima fan. On this barren, tiny stage, the actors are under a hot-lit microscope, forced to find the individuals beneath the archetypes they represent.
Latimer, as the mother-in-law, looks like an oversized cream puff, all white flounces and wigs and powder. But as a performer she reminds me of a self-contained hurricane, with enormous powers--presence, voice, intelligence--that she metes out carefully. Her character, after all, is a social climber who values appearances above all else--the reason she married her daughter off to a nutty nobleman in the first place. Sade's crimes mostly involved overdosing prostitutes with Spanish fly, whipping them silly and raping them. He sought spiritual enlightenment through the exchange of pain, and viewed the sacred and profane as entwined. But like Faust before him, Sade's brand of heresy was, ultimately, only the extension of a deep belief in God's existence. In Renee's view, Sade "built a back stairway to heaven."
If that all sounds a little obscure, well, it does in the play too. For some reason, Renee (who herself looks like a reject meringue) tolerates his shenanigans with the philosophy, "If my husband is a monster of depravity, I must become a monster of devotion." Why? A taste for the whip? S/M's more interesting than needlepoint? We don't know if this wild-eyed child is on drugs or crazy, and when she finally decides to leave him after his 18 years in prison, we're unsure if she's finally come to her senses or is about to crack up.
Still, I was unconvinced by Lund's performance--I felt her acting much of the time. Morgan is especially smart and sexy as sister Anne, though Perdue as the Comtesse seems to have no secrets or subtlety. But while Mishima understands women as thinkers, he's written them as if they had no bodies, except for the Comtesse--a weakness for a play so centered on female physicality. I don't mean that Mishima should have necessarily done any one thing differently; it's a generalized ignorance that ends up distancing us from the characters' experience. These are women who lived in corsets, had no birth control pills or penicillin; who suffered in pregnancy and labor, were hung by the wrists, whipped, fucked brutally, worshiped and beaten--yet the experience of all this is lost.
One other flaw: The play, even abridged as it is here, runs three hours. For a piece of solid dialogue, that's too long. There's a lot to chew on here, but you'll find your jaw gets sore long before the lights go up. CP
Madame de Sade runs through the end of April at the Cedar Riverside People's Center Theatre; 879-9075.