You can walk out of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play with the feeling of having been fed at a play that isn’t, like Tony ’n Tina’s Wedding, also a test of one’s endurance. A stirringly ambitious triptych of plays centering on three different decades’ stagings of The Passion amid their respective cultural climates, this one richly feeds your mind as well—and the bread (well, bagels) and wine (and even pizza on Sunday performances) being passed around are no match for what you’ll take home with you.
Ruhl, a Pulitzer finalist this year for her sensitive period drama In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play, sometimes twists a viewer’s brain into a vice to illustrate her writing, something her detractors seem to loathe. But for those on her wavelength, which to my mind recalls playwrights such as Tony Kushner and Tom Stoppard who share her frisky observational style wrapped in playful historical context, her works have a delirious rhythm all their own, and there’s no playwright around who takes the kind of risks she does. They may not always pay off in conventional ways, but the execution is never less than thorough.
Spanning three-and-a-half hours and three acts, Passion Play takes shape in a community center in Brooklyn (which appears to have its own religious doctrine on its walls), and this New York incarnation, reportedly much less flashy than its previous ones, benefits greatly from Mark Wing-Davey’s community-based approach. After all, the three playlets embody the notion of community theater, and how art not only transforms its audiences, but those creating it most immediately.
We begin in Northern England in 1575, as Queen Elizabeth (T. Ryder Smith), with her mind on religious control, attempts to shut down the Passion plays. Ruhl’s melding of realism and dreamlike states begins its focus here, as we first witness the events that will course through all three acts in repetitious yet surprising ways. In the play-within-a-play structure of the piece, John the Fisherman (Hale Appleman) plays Jesus in this act, and his brother, a fish-gutter (Nurse Jackie’s Dominic Fumusa), assumes the role of Pontius Pilate, and the beginnings of the tale mark their place, including a rather bawdy trip to the Garden of Eden.
The second and most striking of Ruhl’s three acts is set in 1934 Bavaria as a troupe stages The Passion as the Third Reich is just around the corner, with Polly Noonan’s Village Idiot seemingly attuned to the real-life carnage on its way (“People like the bloody parts better,” she intones about their impending production). A British journalist (Daniel Pearce) is chronicling theater in the region, while the play’s Jesus and Pilate characters (Fumusa and Appleman again) become clandestine male lovers eventually separated by WWII. And Hitler himself (Ryder again) descends on the production only to give it his blessing, as the Jews-killing-Christ motif strikes his fancy.
The third act is the most problematic, mainly because it seems the most familiar. Beginning in South Dakota in the free-love era, the Jesus and Pilate figures (Appleman, Fumusa) are now actors/brothers again in a love triangle with a fellow player (Kate Turnbull) who assumes relationships with both after one enlists in Vietnam and returns shell-shocked and questioning the representation of God, while the other parlays his rock-star looks and persona into a TV career. Eventually, in 1984, the troupe performs for President Ronald Reagan (Ryder) in an amphitheater, with the Gipper revealing surprising depths about his own rise to power. This portion was created a while after the first two, and it shows. While never uninteresting and as superbly acted as the rest, the melodramatic arc that weaves through it is nevertheless one we’ve seen before.
But Wing-Davey’s visually resplendent mounting is one we haven’t really seen before—a stylistic yet shrewdly intimate meeting of the boldly theatrical with the textually suggestive. Ruhl’s works always allow designers and technicians to run imaginatively wild, and this no exception, though the minimalist touches are just as exciting as the bolder strokes (human-sized fish puppets, elaborate lighting effects, smoke machines). But the whole evening would just be fancy pageantry if not embodied by such a first-rate cast, with Fumusa a believably masculine force of nature and Appleman’s soulful, specific Jesus figures deserving special mention. But anytime Smith turns up in his three iconic roles is when the already-excellent acting reaches nirvana here; he’s one of those supremely gifted pros who manages to hold an audience in thrall inside a single speech, and the representations are never caricatured or overstated, which would have been so tempting to do here by a lesser actor.
The design team all deserve mention—from Allen Moyer and Warren Kapp’s portable, crafty crate-based scenery, to Gabriel Berry and Antonia Ford-Roberts’s pitch-perfect costumes, to David Weiner’s dazzling use of mood lighting—and also to the relatively small Epic Theatre Ensemble for taking on this mammoth, undeniably challenging piece. Faith or no faith, whatever denomination you wish to call yourself, Passion Play more than lives up to its title.
Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play is now playing at the Irondale Center (85 South Oxford Street, Fort Greene) in Brooklyn, NY through June 5. Schedule varies, please visit the website below for exact start times. Running time: 3 hours and 30 minutes, two intermissions.