Saturday, Mar. 14–Sunday, Mar. 29, 7:30 p.m., $15–$18 

Durham Friends Meeting, Durham

For a musician who’s already plumbed humanity through a dizzying array of lenses, from tardigrades and silver bears to Dracula by way of Hegel, perhaps it was inevitable that al Riggs (who uses a lowercase “a” in their performance name) would eventually wind up writing music for the Marquis de Sade.

Now, thanks to a licensing hiccup that Bare Theatre encountered while Riggs was serendipitously working on an album of Stephen Sondheim covers, that moment has come. 

The Marquis de Sade, an 18th-century writer and mind-games grandmaster whose extreme sexual proclivities inspired the word “sadism,” was immortalized in the notorious play Marat/Sade. Bare Theatre, which is producing the play at a Quaker meeting house in Durham March 14–29, discovered that Richard Peaslee’s original score cost far more to license and rent than playwright Peter Weiss’s script. 

“I wanted to prove to myself—and to the phantom people who would care, and don’t exist—that I could write something other than guitar-based folk music and rock music.”

So director Dustin Britt called in Riggs to write new music, which would also clear the way for a considerably different production than the one originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964.  

“If I used that music, I was never going to be able to escape from that production,” Britt says. “I was going to be stuck.”

In Weiss’s text, Sade, who was imprisoned in a French asylum during the last decade of his life, persuades its administrators to let him direct his fellow inmates in a musical history play about the French Revolution, as a supposedly noble experiment in art therapy. Too late, his true agenda of revenge stands revealed when his play inflicts psychological damage specifically tailored to each member of the cast.

Though Riggs is a prolific songwriter and a musical theater fan, they’d never written music for others to perform. The theatrical assignment gave them a chance to flex their musical muscles in several new directions.

“I wanted to prove to myself—and to the phantom people who would care, and don’t exist—that I could write something other than guitar-based folk music and rock music,” Riggs says. 

The temptation to take up Weiss’s work was reinforced by shortcomings Riggs found in the original score.

“Looking at it contextually, you’ve got an asylum filled with people with mental health issues,” Riggs says. “There’s absolutely no way in hell any of them would have been able to pull off those needlessly complex and obtuse previous arrangements. They’re almost Zappa-esque.”

Though they’d seen the film version years before, Riggs made it a point not to consult the original score—“not even to check if I was ripping anything off”—while setting Adrian Mitchell’s lyrics to new music.

“I only had the physical script in front of me; I just wanted this to be a very pure thing that totally came from the words first,” Riggs says. “A lot of times, I was guided by the contextual mood of the scene, and I collaborated with Dustin Britt in figuring out the tone. And a lot of times, I was told to abandon the tone and mood and kind of create something in a bubble that would then inspire the mood of the actual scene.”

The influences in Riggs’s cycle range from vaudeville and Kurt Weill to East German church music and beyond; a song for the character Jacques Roux, a radical priest, has “dissonant chords, performed with the same kind of joy and energy as a tent revival,” Riggs says. 

But they’re quick to credit three specific inspirations: the heavy, intricate guitar drones of Sunn O)))); obscure Scottish songwriter Ivor Cutler, whose sardonic satires Riggs calls “proto-Magnetic Fields;” and British songwriter Richard Dawson, whose 2017 album Peasant included a forbidding song called “Ogre.” Riggs and Britt both thought of it when talking about what the show would sound like. 

“The contrast between horror and celebration screamed Marat/Sade to me,” Britt says. 

Germôna Sharp has Riggs’s favorite instrument in the ensemble: a bible that her character, Roux, inexorably thumps as a percussion instrument.

Still, writing the music was complicated by the fact that the band didn’t exist yet. The actors, who were still being cast, would play the instruments and sing the songs. As they worked through the score, Riggs feared an ensemble that “could only play ukuleles and guitars.”

That didn’t turn out to be the case, though the cast still makes for some unconventional orchestration. Simon Kaplan (Sade) plays the clarinet, while Natalie Sherwood (Marat) jams on cowbell. 

Elena Montero Mulligan (Polpoch) plays piano, and assistant music director Mark Werdel (Rossignol) plays guitar. Jessica Flemming (Kokol/Lavoisier) covers the trumpet, though it must be said that she and drummer Emily Levinstone (Cucurucu) both play ukulele. 

Germôna Sharp has Riggs’s favorite instrument in the ensemble: a bible that her character, Roux, inexorably thumps as a percussion instrument. 

Other cast members fill in on miscellaneous objects, from an empty instrument case to a bag of Bananagrams tiles—whatever Riggs had at hand. The hodgepodge instrumentation suits the music. 

“What landed in my lap was a series of songs that sound like they come from completely different shows,” Britt says. “The varieties of styles, timbres, tempos and influences—every song is a score unto itself.” 

Gentle or loud, each note pushes matters toward the breaking point, as people imprisoned for years are finally given a chance to say—and act on—exactly what they’re thinking. 

“When you open that door,” Britt says, “what do the floodwaters do?” 

A dangerous question gets a musical answer in Durham this week. 

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