In the first act of Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, a cycle, now playing at Arena’s Kreeger Theatre, a roguish character offers to show villagers “the scaffolds that bring men up; the machinery that brings men down.” While this merchant may be offering only to demonstrate how his flying contraption hoists a poor fool into the air, he may very well be selling the audience on Ruhl’s entire show, an ambitious, sweeping story than spans centuries and plunges into themes as broad as they are deep.
Set in three wildly different locations and times (England 1575; Obergammergau, Germany 1934; Spearfish, South Dakota, late 1980s), the epic Passion Play has been a special project of Arena’s Artistic Director Molly Smith for several years. Smith prodded Ruhl to return to the show ten years after Ruhl wrote parts 1 and 2 as an undergraduate at Brown University (with encouragement from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel).
Arena is rightly proud of debuting this ambitious work, with Smith herself taking the directorial reigns of the show. Assembling a fine cast and crew, one may easily imagine Smith hovering in the back of the theatre during each performance, anxiously watching audience reaction to the birth of her child, to this mammoth story of the performance of the passion play through the ages and its effect on the community in which it is staged.
Smith’s assembled cast works well with Ruhl’s sometimes clunky language and while the ensemble acting is solid, with each actor creating a unique character within the crowd, two in particular stand out: Polly Noonan as the Village Idiot/Violet and Felix Solis in what may be considered the lead role of the show, Pontius Pilate. Noonan infuses a nervous energy into her character that permeates her very being, all twitchiness and neuroticism. Echoes of the madness of her earlier Village Idiot lay the foundation for her more “normal” character of Violet in the third act – Violet is indeed odd, but it is the memory of what Noonan was like in previous acts that reveals her true character. With a diction that remains clear even in moments of hysteria, Noonan provides many of the more emotional moments of the show with her maligned and misunderstood Village Idiot, often offering deep insight with few words.
Similar to Noonan’s third act job of carrying her character into the future, Solis yanks his Pontius into the 20th century by offering an emotionally intense rendering of a Vietnam veteran who returns to the United States to find himself at sea, uncomfortable in once familiar situations. Delivering a solid performance in all three acts, Solis charts the evolution of his character through the ages, from jealous cousin of the villager who plays Christ to an emotionally deranged veteran who screams “You want to know about real sacrifice? It’s in the body!” before hammering a nail into his hand.
Also worth noting is Robert Dorfman’s turn in probably the best named multi-character role in the history of theatre – Queen Elizabeth/Hitler/Reagan/Nixon. While he occasionally veers dangerously close to caricature, Dorfman ends up charting a safe course with his various characters, delivering a searing speech as Adolf Hitler in the second act that renders the entire audience deadly silent and opening the third act with a spot-on Regan impression. The Regan impression is rendered so effectively in part due to the huge belt buckle and cowboy hat that Dorfamn doffs. Yet costume designer Linda Cho sometimes falls short of authenticity, occasionally rendering actors into cartoon versions of their characters.
One need not use overly thick ship rope as a belt to “show” a fisherman, nor give an English tourist a sweater, notepad and pen, camera, and straw boating hat. However, on the whole, her (occasionally over-) simple designs serve the show well and allow the actors the freedom of movement they need. The simplicity of the costumes is merely a reflection of the starkly elegant set, designed by Scott Brady, whose work with famed director (and minimalist) Mary Zimmerman is evident in his latest work. Using the most simplistic of suggestions and clean lines, Brady allows the actors and the script to take center stage. Examples permeate the show, but exceptional example consists of a large rectangle framed by rounded fluorescent bulbs which ingeniously allow the actors to interact through an illusatory mirror, but lets the audience to watch them through the other side of a two-way mirror.
On the stage floor, crisply painted lines vanish into an indeterminate point in the distance, creating a beautiful illusion of a visual depth. Emanating from this vanishing point are straight lines topped by arrows that point into all angles of the audience as well as leading the way into the future. However, the overwhelming visual element of Passion Play is a large cross, raised and lowered into the stage with swift, silent movements. The solid wooden cross is embedded in a larger platform that rises when the time has come for the actual passion play to be performed in its various incantations. This blatant visual reminder of the play within the play never allows the audience to forget the most obvious theme that ties these different times and locales together.
Of course, the passion play, the “greatest story ever told,” is not the only thread that ties the three acts together. The clear visual elements, of the cross and the costumes of the play within the play which remain the same in each act, help to provide cohesion. The fluidity of the relationships between characters offers the opportunity for amazing development of characters, for with each progressive act, the audience carries the memory of the previous act(s). Friends become lovers, lovers become siblings, a woman who lost a child again becomes a mother, a Nazi becomes a Vietnam veteran. These individual characters that Ruhl sculpts are so small on the stage, “this stage of history,” as one character expresses it. Each character is a product of their time and serves only as the foundation for the actor to build later characters upon.
By the third act, one is overwhelmed by the history of those who came before. Indeed, one could imagine Ruhl adding infinitely more acts to this show, exploring the role of the passion play in different communities and ages. But then, is that not our own history, of building upon that which we know to help strengthen us for what lies ahead? Of recognizing and acknowledging the dialectic of history – all of those conflicting moments (professing a love of Christ while locking the town’s sole Jew in a cage; providing love and comfort to your brother’s wife while he is away, only to intimately betray him,) that compose human history and make it fascinating.
Ruhl searches these conflicts out, and in a Hegelian manner, explains to the audience that the only way to work through them is to negate them and use that which comes from the negation to move forth. Soldier on, she tells us, and look forward to what may come.
One may leave the 3 hour and 40 minute performance feeling the same way; what we have just witnessed is a major artistic leap by Arena and offers us hope for the future of the American playwright. Kudos to Ruhl and Arena for accepting the mantle of such a challenging work and we wait, anxious, for what comes next.
A Passion Play . written by Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Molly Smith. Design: Scott Bradley (set) Linda Cho (costumes) Joel Mortiz (lights) André Pluess (sound and original music) Scott Suchman (photography) Amber Dickerson (stage manager). Cast: Kelly Brady, Parker Dixon, Robert Dorfman, Leo Erickson, Carla Harting, Edward James Hyland, Karl Miller, Polly Noonan, Howard W. Overshown, Lawrence Redmond, J. Fred Shiffman, Felix Solis. Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Juliet Moser.