`Passion Play': Ruhl's antiwar message writ large

Theater Review

September 10, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Halfway through Passion Play, a cycle, a character remarks: "In Oberammergau, everything is as it appears to be."

Oberammergau, Germany, is the site of the most famous continuing staging of the medieval, religious Passion play. That town, in 1934, is the setting for the second part of Sarah Ruhl's ambitious trilogy about war, religion, politics and prejudice. And, everything is definitely not "as it appears to be" - in Oberammergau (where the supposedly pious Passion play performers turn out to be Nazis) or in the settings of either of the other two parts of this drama.

Act 1 takes place in Elizabethan England; Act 3, in 20th-century South Dakota. Queen Elizabeth I, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan all make appearances, as do three giant fish, a fleet of imaginary boats and a lot of red sky.

This is huge stuff, and the entire triptych - all three parts in one evening - is receiving its world premiere under Molly Smith's direction at Washington's Arena Stage. But while the playwright dares to think big, she also resorts to didacticism by the end of this 3 1/2 -hour antiwar discourse.

The thing that ties the three acts together is that the actors are presenting a Passion play in each, and the same major players always take the same major roles. Beatific-looking Kelly Brady always plays the Virgin Mary; spirited Carla Harting is always Mary Magdalene; gentle Howard W. Overshown is always Jesus; and anxious Felix Solis is always Pontius Pilate. In addition, Polly Noonan portrays a recurring character known variously as the Village Idiot and Violet, and, as is often the case with Village Idiots, she's also the play's recurring truth-teller.

Thematically, the acts are linked because each demonstrates the vicious cycle of intolerance. The first act takes place in 1575 and ends with the Catholic-phobic Elizabeth I (Robert Dorfman in gloriously bejeweled and bewigged drag) banning Passion plays. It's a depiction of intolerance toward the simple townsfolk who act in the play. In this act, when the sky turns blood red, everyone notices.

In the second act, in which Dorfman reappears as Hitler, it's the performers themselves who are intolerant as more and more of them don Nazi uniforms. Here, only the Village Idiot can see the red sky; in fact, she's the one who summons it.

And, in the third act, when the actor playing Pilate returns from the Vietnam War, intolerance pits the cast members against each other, and no one seems to notice the sky turning red.

The acting is impressive throughout, but for the most part, Ruhl's Passion Play turns out to be more intriguing in theory than in practice. The playwright wrote the first act as her senior thesis at Brown University, and despite some wonderfully fanciful flourishes, there's still an academic feel to much of the proceedings.

By the final scene, Ruhl gives up all efforts to put her message across dramatically. Instead, she has the Vietnam vet preach at us: "I don't know if this country needs more religion or less of it. Seems to me everyone needs a good night's sleep. Maybe that way they'd wake up for real. ... When you're awake, you can stand up to tyrants ... "

In contrast to this speechifying, there's a lovely little scene earlier in the act between the Vietnam vet and his young daughter. When the little girl can't get wars out of her head, father and daughter pretend to pluck the wars out, fling them on the ground and then smash them with their feet.

It's a delightfully small but telling human moment in a play overflowing with grand strokes and pronouncements. Granted, the playwright's own passion is never in doubt, but her debate becomes so strident and one-sided, and her characters so thin, it's difficult to become involved with what's being said, or who says it.

Passion Play, a cycle

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; matinees at 1 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 16

Tickets: $41-$60

Call: 202-488-3300

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