nytheatre.com review by Matthew Freeman
May 8, 2010
Full disclosure: I once wrote and performed a play in which I assumed the posture of a playwright who was intensely jealous of Sarah Ruhl's success. You can read about it here.
Full disclosure #2: I could rightly be called a fan of director Mark Wing-Davey's portrayal of Zaphod Beeblebrox in the 1980s BBC version of The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy. If that colors my review, so be it.
Epic Theatre Ensemble's production of Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play is expertly staged. There are giant fish puppets, sailing ships on sticks; crates that transform into family homes, confessionals, trees. Director Mark Wing-Davey and his team of designers have fully integrated this existing production (which has already been staged at Yale and in Chicago) into the unique space of the Irondale Center at Lafayette Avenue Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They put on what amounts to a special effects display for theatre geeks.
Wing-Davey is fully supported by a game cast of terrific actors, putting on their own impressive display. Standout performers like Hale Appleman and Dominic Fumusa, who variously play the Jesus and Pontius Pilate roles throughout the three parts of the play, both do brilliant work in particular. T. Ryder Smith hits home runs from low, slow pitches across the center, stealing the show in roles designed for exactly the purpose (Queen Elizabeth I, Hitler, and Ronald Reagan).
The play itself, though, is less successful. In three acts, Passion Play moves from 16th century England to 1940s Germany and then finally settles in 1960s/80s South Dakota. In each setting, a Passion Play (the story of Jesus's crucifixion, essentially) is being performed, amidst trying political times, occasionally foreboding theatrical images, and interpersonal dramas. Its three-and-a-half hours are packed with subject matter, held together by a studied structure that seems designed to amuse as opposed to illuminate.
Ruhl deftly weaves her various threads. Phrases and scenes reappear in ways that offer an almost Pavlovian reward for the audience member who pays attention. Enviable command of the form is on display everywhere: skillful doubling, smart juxtapositions of dialogue, creative imagery. I can happily say that throughout the length of the play, I never felt as it was dragging or boring me. There's always something going on, and that something is always fun to see.
The charms, though, are almost entirely on the surface. The subjects that Ruhl hits on are a history of 20th century theatrical cliches: Holocaust dramas, gay themes, Vietnam dramas. The second and third parts are especially weak on this point. The Nazi characters are from an almost comedic tradition; and the Vietnam vet in Part Three seems lifted wholesale from an Oliver Stone picture. Her use of the wise-fool character in the guise of the Village Idiot/Violent (played well by Polly Noonan) embraces only the most well-worn aspects of this archetype.
Passion Play occasionally tries to be about Theatre with a capital "T" and that works intermittently for a few one-liners, but it's never particularly profound on that point. Ruhl implies that the actors' lives are informed by the characters they are playing, but never makes that case convincingly.
There are also fanciful moments that never really add up. Why, for example, does the sky turn red throughout half of the action? I'm not entirely sure. The fish parade seemed supported by the text, and there's plenty of fishing imagery in the Bible (Jesus as a fisher of men; the loaves and fishes, etc.); but the actual Bread and Puppet-ish fish in the play aren't clearly defined symbols. Are they harbingers of something? Stand-ins for God? Or are they (which I rather suspect) an untethered imaginative notion, that's simply dropped in whenever a poetic image seems called for? This same feeling washed over me as I listened to monologues about controlling the wind, or moments where characters "catch the night air" in mason jars. Ruhl's writing is intuitive on these points, certainly, and there's an argument for leaving symbols like this open to interpretation, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was less to them than met the eye or ear.
Above all, though, what's missing from Passion Play is a passion for the subject of religion. There's little interest in theology. Instead, the play is full of pat social commentary, a contemporary read on the politics (Ruhl's hindsight being just as 20/20 as anyone else's), and unrelated character stories. The script is preoccupied with how Jewish people were presented in the story historically; less so interested in the suffering and redemption inherent in the tale itself. Certainly, the treatment of the Jewish people in The Passion Play is a subject that's worthy of some interest: but there's far more in the story of Jesus's cruxification than that.
Furthermore, there's cursory attention paid to variations in religious interpretation. A Catholic read on The Passion Play would be entirely different from, let's say, the read of what are likely largely Lutheran South Dakotans. Christians aren't only separated by politics: they read the Bible differently. When a reporter in Part Two professes that the Oberammergau Passion Play nearly made him Catholic but that he's "still Anglican," you'd barely know how close Anglicans and Catholics are formally. An "Anglican" Passion Play might not look all that different from one that is Catholic, depending on the church and the region.
In the end, there's quite a bit to recommend about Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play. The performances are delicious, and the production itself is a pleasurably whirring contraption. Sarah Ruhl is heralded for good reason, as her play is as well-crafted as the production. Beneath it all, though, Passion Play doesn't dig deeply enough into its many and intriguing subjects. It's a beautiful, but empty, epic.