Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play"

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note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Jon York

"Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play"

A Review by Jon York

Sarah Ruhl is clearly a gifted playwright who tackles contemporary themes with a great ability to create innovative theater. In September, 2006, she received a MacArthur Fellowship (nicknamed the Genius Grant) worth half a million dollars. The announcement of that award stated: “Sarah Ruhl, 32, playwright, New York City. Playwright creating vivid and adventurous theatrical works that poignantly juxtapose the mundane aspects of daily life with mythic themes of love and war.”

Precocious as a child, she exhibited a flair for the theater at a very early age. When she was only 5, her mother, Kathy Kehoe Ruhl, an actress in Chicago and professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago, parked her at the theater while she rehearsed, and the ever-ambitious Sarah would take notes on the production. “I would think they hadn’t gotten it quite right,” Ms. Ruhl remembered.

All of her major plays have been produced by professional theater companies in the Boston area within the last few years. Ruhl gained widespread recognition for her play The Clean House, a poignant tale in which the characters are challenged to find joy in spite of death. It won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2004 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005.

Her play Eurydice, produced off-Broadway at New York’s Second Stage Theatre in June, 2007, centers around the use and understanding of language. It is Ruhl’s own version of the classic Eurydice and Orpheus tale, and portrays an Alice and Wonderland type of nether world complete with talking stones and a Lord of the Underworld who can be seen riding a red tricycle. The play dissects relationships, love, communication, and the permeability between the world of the living and the world of the dead, in a quest to discover where true meaning lies in life and thereafter.

Dead Man’s Cell Phone premiered in New York City at Playwrights Horizons in 2008, exploring technology and the disconnect people are experiencing in the digital age. “Cell phones, iPods, wireless computers will change people in ways we don’t even understand,” Ruhl stated. “We’re less connected to the present. No one is where they are. There’s absolutely no reason to talk to a stranger anymore—you connect to people you already know. But how well do you know them? Because you never see them—you just talk to them. I find that terrifying.” Ruhl made her Broadway debut with In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), which opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre in November 2009. It was a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, Best Featured Actress, and Best Costume. The play serves as a history of the vibrator, which was once used as a treatment for women diagnosed with hysteria.

Ruhl explains her nonlinear realism, which is full of surprises and mysteries but lacking exposition and psychology, by stating “I try to interpret how people subjectively experience life. Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him. I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned. They’re pre-Freudian in the sense that the Greeks and Shakespeare worked with similar assumptions. Catharsis isn’t a wound being excavated from childhood.”

At first she had wanted to be a poet. Then, in 1996, as an undergraduate at Brown, Ms. Ruhl took a playwriting class with Paula Vogel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive. She planned to write a thesis on actresses in 19th-century literature and asked Ms. Vogel to oversee her thesis. “She was very sneaky,” Ms. Ruhl said. “She refused and said if I wanted her to be my adviser, I would have to write a play instead.”

Thus began a project about a man who wants to be Christ in a Passion Play. Ms. Ruhl grew up Roman Catholic, but her faith lapsed when she was in middle school. She showed the play to Ms. Vogel, who arranged a production at the new plays festival at the Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence, RI. It was Ms. Ruhl’s first.

“If Virginia Woolf became a playwright, she’d be someone like Sarah Ruhl,” Ms. Vogel said in an interview, praising the “epic intelligence” of her former student.

Passion Play, a Cycle has grown into a three-part event looking at the production of various Passion plays during the virulently anti-Catholic reign of Elizabeth I, while the Nazis amassed power in pre-World War II Germany, and in South Dakota during and after the Vietnam War. It has been produced at several theaters, including the Actor’s Center in London and the Arena Stage in Washington, where it received mixed reviews in 2005. In 2007 The Goodman Theater in Chicago and in 2008 the Yale Repertory Theater mounted productions. Ms. Ruhl has said that even after a decade of writing, “I’m still working on it.”

The New York debut was an interesting production in 2010 by the Epic Theater Ensemble at the Irondale Center of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. The center’s 19th-century ecclesiastical interior proved to be perfect for the themes of the epic play. The title was changed to Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play, and the work became the center of a festival of related events intended to bring together believers and nonbelievers to investigate the intersections of faith, ritual, belonging and performance.

“I’ve been obsessed with the Passion play since I was a child,” Ms. Ruhl has stated. “Maybe it was being raised a Catholic, but I was definitely also interested in how whole towns would get involved, or religiosity could be used as a cloak for other things. In that sense my play is much more about theater than it is about religion.”

The festival began before the play opened with a convocation centering on different forms of devotion and songs from the church’s Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble gospel choir. On Sundays during the run, audience members were invited to gather for locally supplied dinner fare and discussions around the table that takes on a mysterious role. Bread and wine were served at all intermissions.

More than 40 groups, which organizers called the Passion Coalition, participated in the festival, aligning with Epic Theater’s mission to stage politically conscious work and to create programming directed at New York City’s public schools and their underserved communities. Zac Berkman, one of Epic’s executive directors feels that he “missed the sense of community religion gives you growing up. Theater should feel like a secular church.” Backstage called this production “the most exciting, stimulating, and thrilling piece of theater to hit New York since Angels in America.”

During the epic trilogy, we first see a small town in England performing the Passion in 1575. The man who plays Pontius Pilate wants to play the role of Christ, played by his cousin. The woman playing the Virgin Mary falls in love with the man playing Christ. The players are haunted by the confusion between their roles on-stage and off. Queen Elizabeth I eventually cancels the production as Catholics are persecuted for their “non-official” faith.

The second act leaps to Germany in 1934, where the young man playing Christ is slowly drawn towards the Nazi party. Historically, the first actors in Oberammergau to join the Nazi party were the director of the Passion and the actor who played Christ. In this era, homosexuality plays a larger role, and the Passion’s ingrained anti-Semitism clearly plays a more prominent part. Hitler makes an appearance and comments on the goings-on.

The third act begins in 1969, as a small town in South Dakota puts on their annual Passion Play. The man playing Pontius Pilate goes to serve in Vietnam, returning only to find that his part has been given away to an equity actor. The war has changed his perspective, and he insists on rewriting the dialogue to emphasize his character’s role as an agent of the state. The man playing the role of Christ ends up betraying his brother. Ronald Reagan visits the town, campaigning for the 1984 election. The cycle, together, explores the relationships between faith and politics, authenticity and theatricality, and community and political icons.

A group of theater students calling themselves The Circuit Theatre Company has taken on the challenge of giving Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play its Boston area debut at four different venues this summer. For the first time in the play’s production history, the actor/musicians play and sing all of the music and create all of the sound effects live on stage. Instruments include a banjo, cello, horn, piano, small accordion, 8-stringed lute, train whistles, and several guitars, along with the appropriate percussive effects.

The show begins with a very high energy level, as the enthusiastic actors interact with the audience members. The interactions continue as the cast performs an unusual shoe removal ritual with some audience members. In the performances at the Central Square YMCA Theatre, the performers further engage the spectators by making good use of the center aisle and the steps up to the stage. The Last Supper backdrop gives us the feel of the Passion Plays, and the Sun face stage right, along with the Moon face stage left oversee the action in their silent omnipresence.

Symbols of the first act include prominent fish puppets and a snake hand puppet for Adam and Eve. Night air is collected in jars. A flying maneuver results in a hanging version of the Nutcracker Suite. Queen Elizabeth gives us one of the most memorable “Nooooooooooooo!” lines in response to the question of whether Christ would paint his face. Emma Johnson, the Queen, and later Hitler and Ronald Reagan, stood out with her outstanding interesting portrayals of these three characters

. Ms. Ruhl does not overstress the metaphors as she makes jokes both playful and profound about the dysfunctional family of the theater as a microcosm of the larger world. In the final part, the exasperated director, annoyed at the clashing egos and agendas that have brought things to a halt, puts it plainly. “If we can’t get along in a theater when the world is falling apart, then how can you expect anyone to get along in this world?” he complains. “There’s a war on. Why don’t you do it again. And think about that.”

In New York Times critic Charles Isherwood’s discussion of the 2005 Arena Stage production, he noted, “Passion Play is the product of a keen intelligence deeply engaged by ideas. The play considers, among other topics, the dangerous interplay of politics and religion, the potentially agonizing conflicts between the doctrines of faith and sexual desire, and the fluid nature of identity. Unfortunately, Ms. Ruhl has not created a viable dramatic vehicle for expressing her ideas about all these ideas. Passion Play is largely incoherent, a long fizzle that, despite incendiary subject matter and flashes of oddball humor, never catches fire….

“But while Ms. Ruhl has amply stocked her play with eccentric imagery, quirky characters and potentially provocative ideas, she fails to develop any of these elements in depth. The play begins to seem like a long series of wacky or politically pointed cartoons with little connecting tissue: in other words, those undergrad roots begin to show. “In a cogent program note that is more illuminating than the play, Ms. Ruhl writes, ‘At an historical moment when it sometimes seems as if we are in the middle of a contemporary holy war, I hope this play is taken in the spirit it was written—in the spirit of conversation.’ But her play, despite its venturesome spirit, doesn’t transmit enough fresh perceptions about the knotty issues under examination. And too often she seems to be having that conversation with herself.”

The current production also falls victim to these lapses in Ms. Ruhl’s ambitious imagination. The young actors clearly deserve an A+ for energy, enthusiasm, and sheer guts for bringing this marathon to us. Director Skylar Fox notes that he fell in love with the play at first reading, even though he was terrified of it and did not understand it. Since it is about young people aged 18 to 20, he wanted to tell its story with spokespeople that age, even though he is “still scared” of it. Ruhl’s ideas are definitely worth seeing and contemplating. Perhaps they would fit well as part of a larger festival, as the folks in Brooklyn placed them two years ago. A post-show discussion among the audience and cast may have helped to clarify some of the meanings.

Unfortunately, the hot, humid summer night and the Central Square YMCA Theatre’s rear air conditioner with a range of only eleven inches did not make the venue a likely place for that type of activity after a nearly four-hour performance. A way needs to be found to focus the energy a bit better, so that we can really understand what is being communicated. That may be accomplished through alternative direction, or some rewriting may be necessary. Perhaps Ms. Ruhl is still “working on it.” Maybe the Old South Church will provide a more appropriate setting for the sardonic Passion Play of Sarah Ruhl.

Sarah Ruhl’s Passion Play
Greater Boston Tour

Davis Square Theatre
July 28th at 3:00 PM
July 29th at 2:00 PM
July 29th at 7:00 PM

Central Square YMCA Theatre
August 1 to 3 at 7:00 PM

The Gordon Chapel at the Old South Church
August 10 at 7:00 PM
August 11 at 2:00 PM

August 12 at 7:00 PM

"Passion Play" (28 July - 12 August)
28 & 29 July @ Davis Square Theatre, 255 Elm Street, SOMERVILLE MA
1 - 3 August @ Central Square YMCA Theatre, 820 Massachusetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE MA
10 & 11 August @ Gordon Chapel, Old South Church, 645 Boylston Street, BOSTON MA
12 August ONLY, @ Oberon, Zero Arrow Street, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide