The First Great American Play of the 21st Century?

05/14/2010 4:30 PM |

Passion Play
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey

To say that Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play contains, within its historical triptych, elements of every type of play ever written, would be both a bit of an exaggeration and do immense disservice to the striking originality of her work. Particularly in its New York premiere by Brooklyn's Epic Theatre Ensemble at the Irondale Center (through June 5 after a recent extension), her allusions to, interpolations of and cribbed borrowings from tragic courtships, war stories, Pinter-esque domestic dramas, romantic farces, backstage comedies, Dickensian ensemble narratives and, of course, the Passion Play, coalesce exquisitely into a very funny, affecting and often surreally beautiful show.

Over its three and a half hours (with two intermissions) Passion Play focuses on three productions of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: a clandestine staging in Elizabethan England (where it was, in theory, banned), another in Nazi Germany, and finally mid-80s South Dakota. The meta-theatric subject of community productions of a religious play in small towns seems all the more appropriate given the performance space, a wing of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church with no stage and very simple seating. Seeing Passion Play feels a lot like going to a community theater's Passion Play. The show's carefully crafted amateur look works to its advantage because it is in fact so completely professional and flawless in every respect. From the excellent ensemble cast, who generally play similar characters in each act, to the spectacular set (by Allen Moyer) assembled from an apparently endless number of big wooden boxes on wheels that serve as walls, closets, solitary confinement cells, landscapes and streets, everything moves like clockwork. Wheeled around by an army of stagehands, the modular set props might have been cumbersome or distracting, but as they form various Tetris-like configurations of blocks their multi-functionality echoes that of the text.

Despite its international, postmodern period-skipping, Ruhl's play (like all her others) uses one subject—here, religion—as a lens through which to analyze the various elements that make up American identity. In this case, those include sexuality, faith, morality, community, politics and theater. As she writes in her director's note: "There's nothing more American than the nexus of religion, politics and theater." Or, as John (Hale Appleman) says to a visiting friar in disguise in act one: "We have no public house of worship left. The stage is our house of worship." At 36, not ten years into her professional play-writing career, but already a two-time Pulitzer for Drama finalist, currently a Best Play Tony nominee for her Vibrator Play and one of the five most produced playwrights in the country, Ruhl has quickly become one of the American theater's most original and powerful voices. Though not her break-out work (that was her next one, 2004's The Clean House) it's certainly her most ambitious, an early masterwork in a career that seems to promise many more.

Throughout, the conflicts and themes from the Passion Play inside Passion Play find analogues in the lives of the townspeople. Charged with the double-edged task of playing a slightly pompous dreamer playing Jesus in each act, Appleman manifests a mix of pride, wariness and nervousness. (He's also sinfully attractive hanging from the cross in his loincloth, a running joke in the first segment.) Always taking over the coveted role from his unseen father, the young actor slouches under the symbolic weight of paternal legacy, a charge not unlike that borne by Christ himself. As his brother in the book-ending segments, lover in the middle chapter, and Pontius Pilate throughout, Dominic Fumusa gives a gently stylized performance as the darker, brooding companion, always tormented by the burden of a more sensitive, wounded conscience. As the third point in their love triangle, Kate Turnbull is spectacular, shifting registers more dramatically than her co-stars, whose temperaments remain more stable throughout. To isolate each excellent performance in the company might take longer than the play itself, but brilliantly caricatured performances by Polly Noonan—first as an oracular village idiot then as a precocious child—and T. Ryder Smith as the historical figure in each act (Queen Elizabeth in fabulous drag; Hitler a la Mel Brooks; and Ronald Reagan with a hint of Bush Jr., who was re-elected while Ruhl was writing) deserve special mention.

Wisely, director Mark Wing-Davey hangs his show on the universally excellent actors, and uses special effects and elaborate visual compositions sparingly, so that when these do occur their impact is all the more transportive. Wine and bread (well, bagels) during intermissions keep the audience in the play's enveloping drama even when it pauses. From a magical water effect at the end of act one and a Julie Taymor-ish school of giant fish that passes through repeatedly, to the thunderous rattling of a train as act two closes and the most creative deployments of the rolling boxes, Epic Theatre accentuates the magic of Ruhl's magical realism. Passion Play's pan-historical grandeur and perceptive, razor sharp contemporaneity invite so much list-making: of superb performances, of wondrous effects, of resonant themes, of perceptive observations, of hilarious moments, of tearful confrontations, of clever configurations of rolling boxes, etc. All of these, compiled and assembled, still wouldn't convey how essential Passion Play is to an understanding of American theater and, ultimately, America itself.

(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)