Everything about Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play is ambitious.
Clocking in at just under four hours (yes, you read that right), the three-play cycle chronicles the staging of Passion plays across three places in geography, politics, and history. It uncovers, in the process, parallels in faith, morality, and aspects of human nature.
Ruhl grapples with church and state, and in so doing, most of the hotly-debated topics governed by one or both of those institutions: sexuality, war, family, honesty, sin, forgiveness, morality, mortality. All of life’s big issues. It is a collection of hugely ambitious topics presented over an ambitious stretch of time.
To everyone’s credit, therefore—from Ruhl to Forum Theatre to director Michael Dove and the 11 members of the ensemble—the production feels engaging, dynamic, and effortless. Remarkably, the rapid pace of the plays also gives the cycle a momentum swift enough to make audiences forget that they’re watching what amounts to a full-on Netflix binge of a show.
Because it truly is three plays in one. That’s what accounts for the length.
The first play follows English country folk as they try to mount a Passion play during the anti-Catholic reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In the second, it is players of a renowned troupe in German Oberammergau who are rehearsing the Passion, during Hitler’s ascent to power in the 1930s. The third play-within-a-play is staged in rural South Dakota, during the Vietnam War and its fallout. Each of the 11 cast members assumes different identities throughout the evening, but they remain consistent in their roles within the Passion plays—so Benjamin Cunis always portrays Jesus, Laura C. Harris the Virgin Mary, and Jon Hudson Odom, the Pontius Pilate role.
And it is the exploration of characters that anchors this cycle. Isolate just one performer and his journey and you see the expressions of a person’s potential across vastly different circumstance. Odom, for example, moves deftly from one darkness to the next – beginning as a crippled and bitter fishmonger in the first play to an eager Nazi recruit to a Vietnam veteran haunted by the evils he’s witnessed. Each of these individual progressions offers substantive journeys, ripe with political and psychological complexities to unpack.
The complexities grow richer still when you turn your attention to how each relationship unfolds. Against the cycle’s kaleidoscopic expanse of place and time, we watch as the same actors take turns lusting after each other, acting out their desires or jealousies or sibling loyalties. They take turns occupying certain emotions and places in each other’s lives.
March 19 – April 11
Forum Theatre at
Silver Spring Black Box Theater
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
4 hours with intermission
Tickets: PWYWish all performances or $30 reserved seating
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Perhaps surprisingly, given all of the ideas and themes crammed into this epic, Passion Play offers a healthy dose of humor and whimsy. Schools of enlarged puppet fish weave their way through scenes. And in a memorable trifecta of performances by Tonya Beckman, audiences at once laugh at caricatures of Queen Elizabeth, Hitler, and Ronald Reagan while recognizing the disconnect between leadership and those governed.
Thankfully, Passion Play offers up its themes and commentaries as nudges in a certain direction—subtle provocations rather than answers. And Michael Dove’s production is elegantly spare, choosing to stress the characters, relationships, and human potentialities that transcend location or time rather than ramp up the Big Issues with overtly religious or political iconography. The smart design choices reinforce the anywhereness of the narratives—some scaffolding, some costume racks, some benches. On the whole, this production takes a play that could feel large and unwieldy and grants it an elegant, thoughtful simplicity.
Passion Play is powerhouse of an evening, and a triumph for Forum Theatre. This one’s not to be missed.
Passion Play by Sarah Ruhl . Directed by Michael Dove . Featuring Tonya Beckman, Shayna Blass, Frank Britton, Edward Christian, Ben Cunis, Matt Dewberry, Jonathan Feuer, Megan Graves, Laura C. Harris, Michael Litchfield and Jon Hudon Odom . Produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.