Terrified and gasping for air, a man sitting in a bathtub stares in an eerie silence. Frozen and holding its breath the audience waits for the inevitable.

Erotic, beautiful, hideous and brilliant, Peter Weiss’ “Marat/Sade,” — set 15 years after the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat (Joseph Parks DRA ’08) by Charlotte Corday (Ashley Bryant DRA ’08) — presents the fictional theatrical brainchild of the Marquis de Sade (Jamel Rodriguez DRA ’07), performed in 1808 by his fellow inmates at the Charenton asylum. Much of the cast, however, is dressed in modern clothing, suggesting that this production does not, in fact, take place in that year.

From the synopsis, “Marat/Sade” would appear to be a tragicomedy. But the audience is never meant to laugh. That part of the brain that responds to comedy is continually probed, as if surgically, agitated rather than stimulated. The absurdity balloons a laugh in our lungs, but the audience’s mouths remain gagged, perhaps by the play’s silence, or perhaps by its images of atrocity thrust down their throats, suddenly, like the blade of a guillotine. Laughter which has no outlet is unsettling, making the audience shift in their seats. A vaudeville display of giant beachball-headed marionettes is torn to pieces, spurting fabric ribbons of blood, but laughter is impossible. For the audience, the spectacle has all the terror of real torture.

It is just that reality that “Marat/Sade” seeks to create. Though the action of the inner play runs under two layers of illusion, it is biting and intimate. As Bryant holds her knife over Parks, the audience nearly expects him to die, even expects to feel the blade. They look closely for the red marks on Roderiguez’s back as he shudders under the lashes of a whip. That proximity, despite (or perhaps because of) the dramatic structure, is intoxicating. The audience is unable to think or move; after the final scene, no one left the theater for five hypnotic minutes.

“Marat/Sade” effectively accomplishes its goal: to show humanity a mirror and horrify it with its own reflection. Though the cast of the inner play are all madmen, that’s why they play their parts so well. They are no different than their characters; the shift from inpatient to character is nothing but a shuffling of names, an exchange of hats. Yet their characters actually lived, actually spoke these ravings, in spite of being “normal” or “sane.” Even the ravings are hardly mad; rearrange a few words and an everyday rhetoric appears, the same cries of “liberty” that seem so patriotic. In short, these madmen are modern men.

Even the characters are conscious that the play is subversive to the idea of “human being.” The warden of the asylum, who watches his patients perform, frequently stops the play, protesting its blasphemous suggestions and attacks against Napoleon. Similarly objecting, some members of the modern, outer audience, visibly protested, leaving the theater even before intermission.

Visually, “Marat/Sade” is flawless. The lighting (Amy Altadonna DRA ’07) has all the urgency and sharpness of a nightmare; the set (Paul Gelinas DRA ’08) is made entirely out of filthy white tile, complete with a drain in the center and mops on the side, not unlike an old public bathroom. Richard Peaslee’s music is similarly effective, despite the chorus numbers which, though deliberately confused and cacophonous, are often incomprehensible, disturbing less than they distance the audience from the plot. The sound is particularly effective during monologues, usually set against almost silent ambient sound constructions: a hint of screeching, toneless instruments.

Warning labels were invented for art like “Marat/Sade,” but its value reveals how harmful and limiting censorship is. Though I left the theater battered, humiliated and terrified, I left with the exhilaration of having suffered and survived.