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Fairly stinking of decay, the Washington Shakespeare Company’s rehearsal hall seems the perfect environment to be nurturing Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss’ madhouse of a play, in which the famous bathtub murder is re-created by lunatics under the debased, depraved Marquis de Sade’s direction. The hall’s floor is a crazy quilt of plywood slabs; above it, naked bulbs snake down from the ceiling’s exposed steel skeleton. An enormous, insulated tube pumps out hot, noxious air, and a homemade aqueduct redirects the leaking rain to a sopping corner. It looks, in short, like what an actual cell in Charenton Asylum—where de Sade was incarcerated from 1801 until his death in 1814—must have looked like. Adding to the room’s general sense of corruption, Brian Hemmingsen, who plays de Sade in director Jesse Berger’s production, sits at its center, relating some of the nasty tidbits he has unearthed while researching his role.

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“Biggest creep in the world, this guy,” declares Hemmingsen—who, along with the production’s Marat, Chris Henley, helped found WSC—before describing a gruesome scenario that involves a woman, a hose, a rat, a snake, and two sewed-up orifices. “But, like the Scottish king, you can’t play him as just an evil guy because he wasn’t just a scumbag—he was brilliant. I mean, this is a man who was wronged, who basically wrote for his freedom because he was put in jail without ever being tried,” the actor continues. “He used people, but he used people who wanted to be used. You know, you justify things when you act these parts. I mean, he’s not the first creep I’ve played.”

Nor is this the first time Hemmingsen has worked with Henley. Since 1981, the two actors have collaborated on 38 shows, their professional relationship flip-flopping over the years: When WSC moved into its current home on Clark Street in Arlington, Hemmingsen was its artistic director; now Henley is. And though they’ve directed each other in plays before—sometimes auditioning one another, other times simply assigning roles—they’re glad to be onstage together again. Especially, they say, since it is their characters’ conflicting ideologies that create much of Marat/Sade’s thematic tension. “This play operates on two levels. One is obviously this kind of dramatization of the murder of Marat,” Henley explains. “Then, happening at the same time, there’s a dialogue between Sade and Marat, and Sade’s argument is that there’s a purity in the work of the individual, the imagination, that can never be achieved through political activity or community, while Marat seems to me a symbol of egalitarianism.”

Marat’s position—that the rights of the people outweigh those of the individual—is compromised in Weiss’ play, since Henley is not really playing Marat but a lunatic playing Marat as written by Sade. To prepare for his role as one of Charenton’s madmen, Henley studied documentaries about the mentally ill and met with doctors from the National Institutes of Health. “Two of the few givens in the script are that my inmate has had a lot of hydrotherapy and that the play is set in the asylum’s bathhouse. And one of the doctors we met explained that right before electroshock therapy was invented, people had actually been treated with hydrotherapy and had found it incredibly helpful and soothing,” Henley relates. “Now, of course, it’s thought of as somewhere between leeches and Prozac.”

Sitting together in this ruined room, with a black cat named Remi creeping in to join the proceedings mid-interview, Hemmingsen and Henley have an easy way with each other. Their candor, and the way they step into one another’s conversations, filling in forgotten dates and titles or fleshing out developing theses, reveals not only familiarity but a shared confidence in their work together—one that includes even Marat/Sade, an ambitious play Hemmingsen admits he isn’t terribly fond of. “I didn’t know at first what to make of Weiss’ script, and I still don’t know what it is as a play, but I do know we’re on the verge of having it really take off,” he says, looking to Henley for endorsement. It comes—as an almost imperceptible nod, yes, but it comes—and Hemmingsen finishes his thought: “Yeah, it’s gonna be a shit-kicker of a production. And hopefully by the end of it, I’ll have figured out the play.”—Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa